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February 12, 2006

Iraq's Election Result: Elegant US Exit Looking More and More Elusive
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

Exactly two months ago I posted on the eve of the Iraqi elections identifying 10 signs to watch for to see whether the polling would help stabilize Iraq and hasten an elegant exit by the Bush Administration, or instead only harden the country's violent divisions.  With the election results officially certified on Friday and a parliamentary vote today to retain Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, now seems like a good time to revisit those markers and see which way they now point.   The long and the short is, as usual, mostly bad news for the US in that our most virulent opponents are gaining sway.  While they just might have the power to unify and stabilize the country, they will do so on a platform of radical Islam and deep hostility toward the US. 

1.  Role of the United Iraqi Alliance - This is Jaafari's party and, as I pointed out in December, its success spells growing Iranian influence over Iraq, and a related diminution in America's sway over events.    Jaafari won today (despite a weak track record) because of the support of notorious cleric Moktada al-Sadr who controls the largest bloc of seats within the alliance.  So, in addition to boding well for Iran, Jaafari's victory portends the growing power of Sadr, who led two violent anti-US rebellions in 2004.   Jaafari is also far less popular with Kurdish and Sunni leaders than his chief rival for the PM's post, so - while Sadr dreams of uniting all Muslims against the infidel - inter-ethnic reconciliation on Jaafari's watch is by no means a sure thing.

2.  Performance of the Iraqi National List - This was the party of Iyad Allawi, the CIA's old friend who was appointed Iraq's first interim Prime Minister and was the US's preferred candidate to head Iraq's powerful interior ministry which controls the country's security forces.   Strong performance would have been a good sign for secularism and the US's leverage in Iraq.   Allawi's group won 25 seats, which - if my math is right - amounts to 9% of the vote, or 5% less than Allawi won during elections a year ago.  Moreover, there's now talk of Allawi's party being shut out of the government, rumors that have prompted the Kurds to threaten that if Allawi is left out in the cold, they'll boycott.   Unless and until these disputes are resolved, secularists look to be on the outs in the emerging structure.

3. Speed with which a new government is formed - There were just four months between the December elections and the deadline to fill in a series of highly fraught blanks left in the constitution adopted last October and dealing with issues like federalism and regional autonomy.   Two months have past, and the naming of Jaafari seems liable to prolong rather than expedite talks on forming a government.   Some are saying it will take until June.  The more time that goes by, the less the chances of a grand bargain emerging.

4. The representivity of the new government - The broader, the better is the conventional wisdom.  But while the contours of a new Iraq government aren't yet known, some have argued  that Sadr could play a pivotal role in uniting Sunnis and Shiites based on - you guessed - opposition to the US occupation.  This raises the specter of an emerging Iraq, under Sadr's spell, that is unified, maybe even stable, but radicalized and deeply anti-American.  In that scenario, the Kurds seem likely to go their own way with uncertain consequences for Turkey and the region.

5.  Drawdown of US Troops - I questioned back in December whether the Administration would have the confidence to go through with planned troop withdrawals right after the election.  Sure enough, the Administration did withdraw about 25,000 troops shortly after the polls closed.   But the pullback was driven by domestic political imperatives, delinked from any claim of tangible progress in training Iraqi troops to stand alone, or in curbing the insurgency.   Meanwhile our allies continue to pull out faster than we can.

6. Fraud allegations - I highlighted the possibility of fraud allegations as something that would undermine already fragile Iraqi popular confidence in the vote.  While there were some complaints, there were no serious questions raised about the validity of the election results, which fell pretty much as expected along Iraq's sharply divided ethno-provincial lines.

7.  Coalescence of Shiite and Sunni Religious Parties - I commented back in December that this might represent the best chance for Iraq itself to get the insurgency under control.  As discussed above in point 4, Moktada al-Sadr could be the man who can make this happen.

8.  How quickly does the new government ask the US to leave - Jaafari has to date supported the US's continued presence, though he did so prior to aligning with Sadr.   From what I can tell, a government held in Sadr's thrall is likely to move quickly to try to push the US out, unless a coalition of Kurds, Allawi supporters and others can secure a compromise in return for their participation.   In an interview Friday Sadr said “The Muslim and Arab situation needs solidarity to stand against the Western offensive against Islam and the Middle East . . . What is causing instability to Iraq is the occupation  . . . The exit of the occupier will be a victory for Iraq and not as it is said a victory for the terrorists.”

9. Chalabi - He won no seats.   Iraqi people are not as dumb as some in the Administration seemingly would wish.

10.  The Spin - I argued in December that the more trumpeting the Administration did of the election results, the more likely it was that we would withdraw quickly, claiming victory in the form of any moment of calm we were lucky enough to get.   The Administration will have a tough time portraying Jaafari's reelection and Sadr's growing influence as signs of anything positive.   The power of US Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad, a major power-broker last year, seems to be waning.   With Bob Woodruff still under deep sedation and Jill Carroll begging for her life on national television, its been hard for the Administration to spin Iraq period.  Failing that, its starting to sound as though the Administration may be hunkering down for a while


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Thoughtful post. Though I continue to find an "elegant exit" hard to imagine. What would an elegant exit look like? Was such an outcome ever realistic?

You also imply that given recent developments the administration is on a longer timeline for exit. Is this an approach you support or oppose?

Care to comment on Tom Englehardt's argument that the US is building long-term bases in Iraq?

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