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 Timeshighlights 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

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.

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