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Sunnis, Nationalists Make Gains in Iraq

Preliminary, mostly leaked, results from the elections in Iraq suggest a tectonic shift away from ultrareligious Shiite parties and separatist Kurds, with nationalists, secular parties, Sunnis, and Prime Minister Maliki all making huge gains.

If so, it's the first step toward a major recalibration of Iraqi politics -- and for the good. Big losers: the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), the Iranian-backed Shiite separatist party, whose militia, the Badr Brigade, was responsible for thousands of assassinations since 2003, and the Kurds, whose hold on Nineveh province in the north, was shattered. The election can also be seen as a setback for Iran, whose chief allies in Iraq -- especially ISCI, but also Jalal Talabani's Kurds -- lost.

Actual election results won't be known for a few days, and complete results may take as long as several weeks. Even more complicated, once the results are known, it will be up to the parties -- province by province -- to create coalitions in each provincial council that can form a majority, name a governor and a chief of police, and start running things. That could take a few weeks longer.

But the initial results, if they hold, mean that Iraq will at least avoid what could have been a disastrous outcome: a rigged election in which the ruling parties, especially the Shiite-Kurdish alliance, held on to power against the rising force of the Sunnis, secular Iraqis, and anti-establishment, disenfranchised Shiites.

The Times highlights the fact that not only Maliki but secular parties won big. It says:

"The relative success of the secular parties may be a sign that a significant number of Iraqis are disillusioned with the religious parties that have been in power but have done little to deliver needed services."

Among the secular parties that apparently did well is that of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, whose Iraqiya list made big gains in Baghdad province and may have done well in Basra, too. (See my interview Allawi and an ally here.)

Maliki, according to some reports, swept the vote in all nine Shiite-dominated southern provinces, including Basra, where he won about half the vote, with ISCI getting only 20 percent. Since taking over as prime minister three years ago, Maliki has tried to portray himself as a born-again nationalist, downplaying the ultrareligious underpinnings of his Islamic Dawa party, a cult-like, secretive movement founded by ayatollahs in the 1950s. Few secular Iraqis trust him, but they're willing to make deals with Maliki if he plays fair. And secular and nationalist Iraqis will be happy that Maliki appears to have all but crushed ISCI, widely seen in Iraq as a sectarian party that wants to partition Iraq. ISCI is also criticized as a tool of Iran.

Newsday headlines ISCI's losses, saying:

"The broad message was that the eventual results would punish religious-leaning factions such as the Supreme Council that are blamed for stoking sectarian violence, and reward secular parties seen capable of holding Iraq's relative calm.

"'There is a backlash from Iraqis against sectarian and religious politics,' said Mustafa al-Ani, an Iraqi political analyst based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates."

In Nineveh, whose capital is Mosul, power had been in the hands of a minority Kurdish bloc, since the Sunni Arabs -- who make up 60 to 80 percent of the province's population -- boycotted the 2005 vote. This time, a Sunni-led party, Al Hadba, reportedly won 40 percent of the vote, putting it in the drivers' seat. It's a party that grew out of the Sunni nationalist movement and the Awakening, and it appealed to members of the old Baath party and to Iraqi resistance fighters. Al Hadba also won support from Maliki, too, who took a stand against the Kurds as part of his ongoing effort to burnish his credentials as a nationalist who favors a unitary Iraq. A US official watching the vote told Reuters:

"If al-Hadba has done as well as we think ... we're probably looking at a provincial council in which al-Hadba can govern alone. The crisis of legitimacy is addressed."

A potential trouble spot could be Anbar province, in the west, where the resistance movement originated. The minority, religious party, the Iraqi Islamic Party, controlled the province after the rigged, 2005 vote, and this time various parties associated with the Sunni Awakening and other, secular and nationalist parties expected big gains. Votes aren't counted yet, but there are some red flags. From the Times:

Ahmed Abu Risha, a powerful tribesman in Anbar Province and the brother of one of the founders of the Awakening councils, which joined the Americans to fight Islamic insurgents, said he believed that the turnout was lower than the 40 percent announced by the election commission and that the numbers were being manipulated by the Iraqi Islamic Party. "If the Islamic Party wins, it will be another Darfur," he said.

Also, no word yet on how the Sadist-linked, independent parties did, in Baghdad or in other provinces. Muqtada al-Sadr, once seen as the most powerful man in Iraq, has plummeted in popularity, and he's squirreled away in Iran now. But his movement, which represents the Shiite poor and less affluent voters, may still have scored important gains. Many Sadr-leaning Shiites, however, may have opted for Maliki this time.

Bob Dreyfuss

Bob Dreyfuss is an independent journalist based in New York City and Cape May, New Jersey. For the past twenty-five years, he’s written extensively on politics and national security for a wide range of publications. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, The Nation, The American Prospect, Mother Jones, The New Republic, The Huffington Post, Slate, Salon, and many other magazines and websites.

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