Iraq poll: A milestone nevertheless

Border and airport closures, curfews and a ban on civilian traffic are not normally associated with polling day. Nor are the helicopter gunships and heavily armed escorts foreign journalists need if they dare to find out what voters are thinking. It is a measure of the terrifyingly abnormal circumstances in Iraq that this week’s parliamentary election is being held under such heavy security.

Similar lockdowns ensured a larger than expected (and nearly bomb-free) turnout for January’s first postwar poll to choose an interim government, and for October’s referendum on the new constitution. Both were followed by intensified violence once the iron grip relaxed; it would be a triumph of hope over experience to imagine there will be any let-up this time.

Yet violence should not detract from the significance of this election. The fact that it is being touted by the United States — now flailing around for a way out of its Iraqi adventure — as a ”milestone” event does not mean that it is not a genuinely important one. Doubters should listen to its vilification by jihadi groups as a ”conspiracy of crusaders and apostates”. And the most significant fact about it is that Sunni Muslims have learned from their mistaken boycott in January — which left the interim parliament in the hands of triumphant Shia and Kurds — and are now expected to vote in large numbers. That means the powerful minority that lost most with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and forms the backbone of a still deadly insurgency stands to play a far more proportionate role in the new full-term Parliament and the government.

That is not in itself a recipe for success. In recent months Iraq’s bitter internal conflict has become steadily more sectarian, with cruel attacks on Shia mosques as well as policemen, and the routine murder and torture of Sunni prisoners by Shia security forces who are perceived as stooges of Iran.

It will be hard, above all, for a workable political system to emerge without some waning of the insurgency: that will require negotiation, amnesties and a strategy of wooing the nationalist mainstream away from Islamist extremists. The Shia and Kurds will have to look beyond their narrow interests to understand that, without flexibility on issues such as de-Ba’athification and the constitution, the Sunnis will not stay on board. Much will depend on the precise makeup of the new government, which is bound to be dominated by Shia parties and politicians.

For all the posturing in Washington in particular about ”finishing the job” and achieving ”total” victory, it is clear the US and Britain want to leave and that there will be significant troop withdrawals in the course of next year. As a report by the Oxford Research Group argues, it is vital to establish a timetable, with Iraqi oversight, for ending the occupation as part of an integrated strategy of liberation.

Iraqis themselves are deeply confused — hardly surprising given their state of chronic insecurity and the lack of basic amenities, never mind jobs. The BBC poll published this week showed mixed expectations — a majority seeing a strong leader as more important than democracy, but with democracy becoming a bigger priority over time.

An ill-conceived war that was not the choice of most Iraqis has changed their lives in many ways for the worse — a remarkable achievement given the exceptionally brutal nature of the Ba’athist regime. The war after the war will not end after Thursday’s vote. And whatever political arrangements eventually emerge will likely bear little resemblance to the unitary state founded by the British. Still, this election offers some slender hope that, one day, ballots will be more common than bombs and bullets. Iraq’s friends can only urge their own governments to start doing the right things, its leaders to talk rather than to fight — and hope that that day comes sooner rather than later. — Â

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