A window of opportunity and risk in today's Iraq

Iraq's parliamentary elections have just concluded, but the major political battles are about to begin. At stake is what kind of country Iraq will become. Will Iraq's progress toward greater stability continue? The stakes are high.

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Iraq's parliamentary elections have just concluded, but the major political battles are about to begin. At stake is what kind of country Iraq will become. Will Iraq's progress toward greater stability continue? Will it look east towards Tehran for support and encouragement, or to the United States and its fellow Arabs? The stakes are high, and no one can afford to remain uninterested while Iraq continues its dramatic political evolution.

The winners and losers have not been sorted out yet, but several things are clear. The first of these is that Iraq's democracy is alive and well. Approximately 62 per cent of eligible Iraqis went to the polls, a somewhat smaller turnout than in 2005, but on a par with the number of Americans that participated in the historic election of Barack Obama in 2008. The few calls for electoral boycotts were ignored by the Iraqi population, including Sunni Arabs, some of whose leading politicians had been banned from participating by the shady machinations of Iraq's Justice and Accountability Commission on the grounds of Baathist loyalties.

Second, unreformed insurgent groups and al Qa'eda affiliates were unable to alter the course of Iraq's political advance. Despite well-publicised threats and a campaign of spectacular bombings stretching back to August 2009, voters refused to be scared away. Election-day violence cost the lives of 38 Iraqis and wounded more than 90 others. This is a tragedy. But it is still less than the toll in 2005. It is all the more remarkable given that the Iraqi Security Forces were fully in charge. They once again proved their mettle and demonstrated their steadily increasing capabilities.

Third, despite an upsurge in sectarian rhetoric as the final weeks of the campaign wore down, most of the electoral blocs, including the prime minister Nouri al Maliki's State of Law coalition, tried to appeal across ethnic and sectarian lines. Iraqis appear largely to have voted on the basis of their needs rather than their fears, casting ballots on issues such as the delivery of public services rather than on sectarian and ethnic resentments. This is another marked contrast from previous elections. The movement towards "issues politics" at the expense of narrow group interests seems to have taken another step forward.

What follows now is a period of intense back room politicking as the leading coalitions seek to position themselves to form a government. Early electoral returns indicate the State of Law coalition and Iyad Allawi's largely nonsectarian Iraqiyya bloc, closely followed by the predominantly Shia Iraqi National Alliance, are in the lead. None is likely to claim a majority in the new Council of Representatives, the main legislative body. There is a good chance that these coalitions will begin to splinter as each seeks to entice important candidates and their parties into a new governing coalition. Far from creating chaos, the government formation process, difficult and lengthy though it may be, might very well yield a more broadly representative and vigorous government.

Many potential pitfalls remain, however. The US commander in Iraq, General Odierno, has said that the next 60 days are the most dangerous in terms of the possibility for political violence. Early charges of fraud will need to be addressed quickly by the Iraqi electoral commission and the UN. If the Justice and Accountability Commission strips some successful candidates of their electoral victories and disenfranchises others on charges of pro-Baath sympathies, as the latest rumblings from Ahmed Chalabi and his allies suggest, more trouble and possible violence is likely to ensue, not to mention serious complications for the government formation process. In the meantime, Iran will try to force the major Shia parties into an alliance to present a powerful ethno-political bloc that is capable of dominating Iraqi politics for years to come. Tehran will see opportunities in any protracted period of post-election confusion.

The United States has a serious obligation to Iraq both now and in the future. America must make good on Mr Obama's pledge to foster an Iraq that is "sovereign, stable and self-reliant". But the election marks the beginning of the end for the presence of American combat troops in Iraq. By the last day of August 2010, the Obama administration has pledged to draw down to 50,000 troops. By the end of 2011 all remaining troops must be withdrawn in accordance with bilateral US-Iraqi security agreements. Much remains to be done before then.

In the short term the US must work quietly with the current government in Baghdad and the winning electoral blocs to ensure a smooth transition to a new government that represents the interests of all Iraqis. In the longer term, it means working with Iraq, the UN, and others to help strengthen representative democracy. And it will require a strong political, diplomatic and security relationship with the United States that will help build Iraq's capabilities and anchor it in a regional security system. Iraq and the United States would do well to build on the strategic agreements signed with the Bush administration in 2008. In this context, both countries are eyeing a renegotiation of existing accords to permit a more robust US military presence after 2011.

The Arab states also have a major part to play in Iraq's future. Iraqi nationalism - with its anti-Persian undertones and proud sense of national identity - played an important if understated role in this election. But Iraq will not remain indifferent to Iranian blandishments if ignored by its Arab neighbours. Arab states should grasp the opportunity presented by the new and less sectarian government that will probably emerge to bind Iraq to the Arab world through closer diplomatic, military and intelligence relations, economic ties and cultural exchanges. Iraqi politics are being fundamentally reordered at this very moment. Now is the time to act.

Charles W Dunne is a scholar with the Middle East Institute in Washington and a former director for Iraq at the US National Security Council