Post-election Iraq is at yet another crossroads. The paths it might take could not be more different, writes Ayman El-Amir*
Recent parliamentary elections in Iraq do not mark the end of political or security woes. They could be a step towards building a multi-party national consensus capable of addressing sectarian grievances and the divisive political issues that are the legacy of the US invasion and partition of Iraq -- the system of federalism that was introduced by the first occupation administrator, Paul Bremer III, and that has spawned conflict and terror, among them. Or they could mark the beginning of a new phase of violence and instability.
The fact that no clear winner has emerged may yet prove a blessing in disguise. It could help forge what is currently regarded as far-fetched, a Sunni-Shia partnership, providing, of course, that Nuri Al-Maliki and pro-Iranian Shia leader Moqtada Al-Sadr do not decide to join hands and form a parliamentary majority that would strip former prime minister Iyad Allawi and his Iraqiya parliamentary bloc of the premiership. That could spell another spate of anti-Shia violence.
Iraq has not yet recovered from the after-shocks of the brutal Anglo-American invasion of 2003. Sectarian violence triggered by the invasion has slowed down but not ended. Car bomb explosions and a heavy toll in human lives has become a way of conducting political business. A day before the election results were announced two car bombs exploded in Al-Khalis city north of Baghdad, leaving 24 dead. On the day of the announcement a car bomb in Baghdad claimed the lives of 42. There have been more than 200,000 civilian casualties in the past seven years. Sadly, there is room for many more if the Al-Maliki and Allawi blocs fail to reach a compromise or if regional powers decide to play power politics.
Apart from the Maliki-Allawi rivalry, old Baathists -- the party's higher echelons were banned from contesting the elections -- are making a cautious come-back. In January 2009 they managed a significant showing in governorate council elections in the central and southern provinces. They are a key factor in the reconciliation strategy Prime Minister Al-Maliki announced in 2006 but which has been poorly managed ever since. In more than one way, the victory of former prime minister Iyad Allawi is a vindication of the secular doctrine of the Baath Party, though stripped of the atrocities of Saddam Hussein. Underground Saddamist elements, led by former vice- president Ezzat Ibrahim Al-Dourry, have been a major factor in Iraq's post-invasion resistance and resulting instability. About half of the military staff and servicemen of the 450,000-strong former Iraqi army, now living as refugees in other Arab countries, including Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Yemen and Dubai, need to be integrated in the reconciliation process.
The victory of Allawi's multi-sectarian coalition is a source of both comfort and concern to Iraq's regional neighbours, just as it is to his domestic partners and rivals. Iraq's predominantly Sunni Arab neighbours, who dread the ascendancy of Iran and its role in post-invasion developments, breathed a sigh of relief that the elections had not resulted in an all-out Shia victory. Sunni Arab states fear that Shia dominance will not only trigger a new wave of sectarian violence but will also make Iraq a staging ground for Iran's destabilising revolutionary drive. So do the Iraqi Sunnis and Baathists who reversed their much-regreted boycott approach in the 2005 parliamentary elections and thus influenced the results of the recent ones.
Iran and its Shia allies in Iraq are concerned they will lose ground to a secularly- oriented coalition that may include some former Saddamists and thus eliminate the prospects of Shia-dominated government policies, leaving Shias prey to the worry that they could revert to the position of a prevalent majority ruled by a Sunni minority, including the loathed former Baathists. In northern Iraq, Kurdistanis, who gained 43 parliamentary seats, are interested only in furthering their semi-independent status.
Among the scenarios circulating in Baghdad is the possibility of an alliance between Al-Maliki's State of the Rule of Law bloc and the Iraqi National Coalition of Moqtada Al-Sadr, the firebrand Shia leader. This would result in a parliamentary majority of 159 members -- three members short of the 162 needed to form a government. Al-Sadr was the kingmaker in the 2006 government headed by Al-Maliki. However, a Shia-dominated government that excludes Allawi and his partners, including the Sunnis, would be unstable and unable to provide the security the Iraqis are yearning for.
Not have the Shias forgiven Allawi for his brutal crackdown on the Falluja insurgency in 2004, when he was prime minister.
A power-sharing government between the Allawi and Maliki blocs would be the ideal answer to Iraq's problems but a lot of hard compromises are needed to accommodate the interests of national parties and allay the fears of regional players. Whatever the outcome, Sunni participation in the impending government is crucial to the stability and security of Iraq. Even this may not satisfy hard-core Saddamists, who consider all actions, elections and governments that came into existence since the 2003 invasion null and void, formed under the heavy hand of foreign military occupation.
Another complicating factor for both Iraq and the US is that while the latter is paring down its invasion force it will never be too far from the scene. Washington will maintain a military stronghold to secure Iraqi oil installations, the military entry-exit routes in and out of the country and to ensure that Iraq does not fall into the hands of an anti- Western regime that could threaten US oil interests not only in Iraq but in neighbouring Gulf countries. For nationalist Iraqis, both Sunni and Shia, foreign military presence will remain a festering sore for any government, and a cause for resistance, particularly for the Baathist old guard.
The US, which is becoming increasingly immersed in Afghanistan, will find the Iraqi campaign cause for reflection. Fewer US officials, political pundits and cross-sections of the public now find justification for the invasion and its exorbitant price, especially as paid by the Iraqis. In hindsight, claims that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, of Saddam Hussein's relations with Al-Qaeda and plans for the reconstitution of Iraq's nuclear programme, have all turned out to be a charade. George W Bush's messianic vision of turning Iraq into a model democracy in the Greater Middle East leaves much to be desired. Only former vice-president Dick Cheney, his Haliburton Corporation and the mercenary army of Blackwater Inc are winners, at the price of reducing a country to ashes. So far no democratic model has been introduced in the Middle East and it is doubtful that any US administration would consider a similar misadventure in the near future. If anything, ruling Arab regimes have leeched themselves onto the US by pretending to join in the global war on terrorism -- that is by terrorising their indigenous political opponents. The Iraqis are not grateful for Washington's gratuitous act of liberation, and no Arab nation is anxious to welcome similar assistance. Despotic Arab regimes have learned the lesson that as much as the US is their protector it is also their watchdog.
* The writer is former Al-Ahram correspondent in Washington DC. He also served as director of United Nations Radio and Television in New York.