Divided as Ever, Iraqis Go to the Polls

Violence soaring despite economic turnaround.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Masked anti-government gunmen moving with their weapons as they patrol in Fallujah, Iraq, April 28, 2014.
Masked anti-government gunmen moving with their weapons as they patrol in Fallujah, Iraq, April 28, 2014.Credit: AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Wednesday, for the third time since Saddam Hussein’s regime was toppled, Iraqis are going to the polls to choose a parliament, which, when constituted, will pick a president and a prime minister. These are also the first elections held since the Americans withdrew from Iraq in 2011, which means this time the Iraqi police and military will be responsible for maintaining order on their own.

Struggling against them for control of the streets are terrorists affiliated with radical Islamic groups and Al-Qaida activists, many of whom have returned from Syria to torpedo the elections. The armed associates of Shi’ite separatist Muqtadar al-Sadr are not even bothering to hide the weapons they’re carrying; many MPs and ministers have their own armed militias. The Kurds have a private army, the Peshmerga, that is successfully keeping the peace in the Kurdish enclave, while the Sunni Anbar province continues to be the scene of battles between tribes and between them and the police forces.

In Fallujah, Al-Qaida gunmen are forcing citizens to refrain from voting, while in Baghdad and other cities, dozens of bodies of civilians, policemen and soldiers are piling up from the 10 terror attacks that occurred on Monday, the day voting by the security forces began. Nearly 4,000 people have been killed in Iraq since the beginning of the year, numbers that recall the tragic period of 2006-2007.

One hundred and seven lists, coalitions and movements are seeking a place in parliament under an electoral system whose laws do not include any binding party regulations. For example, the statutes do not detail how the parties will be funded, how they are meant to use the funding given to them, and whether they are allowed to use the ministry budgets for which they are responsible for political purposes.

Before the election, many ministers representing the different sectors and political movements preferred to fulfill sectarian demands instead of dealing with pressing needs. As a result, cities with the “correct” politics won large pieces of the budget, while rebellious areas – mainly Sunni provinces – are in deep financial distress. Corruption is an integral part of the Iraqi government, and as the state’s capital grows and oil production increases, so does the reported corruption at every level.

Iraq is not a poor country. The budget for 2014 will be its largest since 1921, approximately $150 billion. But there’s growing unemployment, inflation, and an increasing lack of economic security. True, the state also recorded some significant economic achievements: per capita income has grown from $1,300 in 2004 to $6,300 in 2012; inflation dropped from 64 percent in 2006 to only 5.2 percent in 2012; the value of Iraqi dinar doubled against the dollar; and foreign currency reserves have soared from $2.7 billion before the war to $67 billion in 2012. Iraq has also managed to greatly reduce its foreign debt and expand trade with neighboring countries.

But alongside these impressive statistics lies a gap between the thin layer of rich people and the vast majority. Citizens who cannot afford private health services are forced to wait months to undergo surgery at government hospitals that use obsolete equipment. Officials close to the trough can afford to go abroad for studies or medical treatment while clerks, teachers, and secretaries can’t make ends meet without holding down two or three jobs.

But it’s not only social gaps that will decide these elections. The ethnic struggle among the Shi’ite movements, the tension and rivalry between the Shi’ites and the Sunnis, the aspirations of the Kurds, and the public’s loathing for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will determine who will be the next president and prime minister, and no less importantly, who will be in charge of important government ministries, like oil, the treasury, interior and defense. Many Iraqis believe that in his eight years at the helm, Maliki went from being a democratically elected prime minister to a dictator who uses the army to fight political opponents.

What happens next is not of interest just to Iraqis. The United States, Iran and Turkey will all be at the edge of their seats today as well. Maliki has been a staunch ally of Iran, which is Iraq’s most important trading partner, and which also sells Iraq $17 billion in natural gas every year. Iraq also provides logistic and financial help to Syria, Iran’s protege.

Iraq’s stability is also very important to Turkey, which sees it as an essential ally in the fight against Kurdish separatists. Ankara would prefer to see a strong and stable Shi’ite regime in Baghdad rather than a regime in which the Kurds have too much power.

Washington, meanwhile, wants to see if after the elections it will still have a partner in the war on terrorism, and would prefer to see Maliki remain in power. The Americans are worried that the election won’t give him a majority, or enough support to establish a coalition and avoid a political war that could drag on for months until a government is established.

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