War Stories

Birth of a Nation?

Iraq is still a mess, but today’s election was a dramatic step in the right direction.

Few sights are more stirring than the televised images of Iraqi citizens risking their lives to vote in their country’s first election in a half-century, kissing the ballot boxes, dancing in the streets, and declaring their hopes for a new day of democracy.

And yet, the challenges and uncertainties that seemed so daunting last week—about Iraq’s security, society, and governance—are unlikely to turn less daunting next week, next month, or the month after.

Yes, as President Bush said in his address this afternoon, the Iraqi people showed the world they want freedom. But this has never been in doubt. The real questions of democracy are what people want to do with that freedom, whether their contesting desires and interests can be mediated by a political order, and whether they view that political order as legitimate. Voting for leaders is a vital but very early step in this process.

Nearly all of the moving TV footage was taken in southern Iraq, the stronghold of Shiite Muslims, where Sunni insurgents lack a base of operation and where, therefore, turnout was expected to be high. The picture was more mixed in Baghdad (though, according to some reports, many more people voted than had been anticipated) and quite dismal in Sunni-dominated areas. (Just 5 percent voted in Fallujah, and commentators were surprised the number wasn’t lower still.)

The election was held to select an assembly that will, above all other tasks, write a constitution. Shiites, who comprise 60 percent of Iraq’s population, were inevitably going to win a majority in this assembly. Given the wide disparity in turnout, they will dominate it.

The precise results won’t be known for days, perhaps weeks. But the vast bulk of votes will probably be split between two Shiite parties—the slate led by Acting Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and the coalition put together by the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Much depends on whether the winners reach out to the dispossessed Sunnis and let them have some say on the constitution’s provisions—as well as shared access to the country’s wealth. (Iraq’s oil is concentrated in the Shiite south and the Kurdish north; hardly any graces the “Sunni triangle.”) If Sunni leaders see they have something to gain by joining the new Iraqi order, they might be less willing to harbor insurgents. If they get nothing out of the deal, chaos will likely continue.

Much will also rest on the outcome of the struggle within the Shiite parties, specifically between the religious and secular factions. If the constitution imposes Muslim law too insistently, the Kurds—who comprise another 20 percent of the population, many of them Christians—may move toward secession. The Kurds, who also voted in very large numbers, elected not only a national slate but a regional assembly. Thanks to protection from U.S. air power, they have enjoyed a certain autonomy from Baghdad for the past decade, and they are not likely to surrender it just because Saddam Hussein is gone; they too need some assurances and rewards before they settle in to a Shiite-majority regime. The Turkish government, which has periodic problems with its own Kurdish minority, has warned that it will not tolerate an independent Iraqi Kurdistan on its southern border.

Whatever political arrangements are devised, they cannot be maintained without a stable social order. Security forces—American, British, and Iraqi—kept order fairly well today. Only a few dozen Iraqi citizens were killed by suicide bombers—far, far fewer than many feared. But the Election Day ban on motor vehicles—a measure that sharply reduced the incidence of terrorist attacks—can’t be extended. There is little question that attacks will soon resume.

President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice may say that Iraq has 140,000 security forces, but U.S. military officers in the region concede that only about 10,000 have been trained or equipped. Anthony Cordesman, a well-briefed military analyst who has been to Iraq many times and has written several studies for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, estimates that only about 4,500 are capable of fighting effectively on their own. Only in the past few weeks has the Bush administration shifted the resources necessary to mount a serious training effort.

The upshot of all this is that if President Bush means it when he says U.S. troops will stay in Iraq until its new leaders can provide for their own security, then we are going to stay there for years.

A sure consequence of the election’s success will be the derailing of any movement in the U.S. Congress to push for a swift troop withdrawal. In his State of the Union Address this week, President Bush will probably say that we cannot desert the Iraqis after their brave display of commitment to freedom. And he will be right. If the new Iraqi government wants the U.S. troops to leave, then they will. But in the past couple of weeks, all the major Iraqi political parties removed from their platforms any endorsement of a withdrawal. They realize that they still need foreign troops both for internal security and for the defense of their borders.

One can hope that President Bush will use the election to prod his own bureaucracy into action. According to the State Department’s own figures, the U.S. government is still pathetically slow when it comes to Iraq’s reconstruction. Congress has appropriated $18.4 billion in aid for that task, but as of Jan. 19, 2005, just $2.7 billion of that sum has actually been disbursed.

In other words, along many avenues of Iraq’s journey to democracy (or wherever it’s headed), there are many, many miles to go.

And yet, is it too romantic to see signs of real hope in today’s election? One thing is clear: The day marked a terrible defeat for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who had declared democracy to be an “infidel” belief. He and his goons passed out leaflets threatening to kill anyone and everyone who dared to vote; they dramatized their threat by killing dozens of police and poll workers in the days leading up to the election. And yet millions of Iraqis—including a fairly large number of Sunnis who live in Shiite areas—defied their fears and voted. Whatever mayhem they inflict in the coming days, it will be hard for anyone to interpret their actions as reflecting the beliefs of “the street.”

In the week before the election, several Sunni leaders said they want to participate in the constitutional process in any case. Do these leaders now regret their calls for a boycott of the election? Seeing how badly Zarqawi failed in his effort to halt or disrupt the election, will they now work more vigilantly to pursue their cause peacefully and to separate their nationalist followers from the foreign terrorists in their midst?

Finally, imagine a Syrian watching Al-Arabiya, seeing Iraqi-born Syrians going to special polling places to elect Iraqi leaders, observing that no Syrians of any sort have the right to elect the leaders of Syria—and perhaps asking himself, “Why?” It is not inconceivable that this flicker of democratic practice in Iraq could ignite a flame of some sort across the Middle East. To what end, and for ultimate good or ill, who knows. But something happened in Iraq today, something not only dramatic and stirring but perhaps also very big.