Not as bloody as war but still messy: Iraqi democracy

Iraqis will go to the polls on March 7, but the process has been tainted by sectarian politicking aimed at the country's more nationalistic and less confessional elements.

Iraq is increasingly referred to as the "forgotten war". This is due to the diversion of US attention and resources to other theatres, including Afghanistan, and fatigue in the international community and media for a conflict that has no clear ending. But the bumpy road to normalisation for Iraqi politics is also to blame. An important episode is playing out right now: Iraqis will go to the polls on March 7 to elect a new national assembly. The manner, outcome and aftermath of this election will vindicate, or disprove, the relative optimism about the trajectory of the country.

So far, compared to the sectarian violence and horrors that engulfed the country only a few years ago, the campaign is proceeding relatively freely and peacefully. According to recent American and Iraqi polls seen by the Iraqi journalist Hussain Abdul-Hussain, the list headed by the current prime minister Nouri al Maliki and known as "State of Law" is expected to come first and win around 80 of the 325 seats in the Iraqi assembly. The list of Iyad Allawi, a former prime minister who heads a multi-sectarian list that originally included the disbarred candidate Saleh al Mutlaq as well as other prominent Sunni figures, would come second with approximately 70 seats. The Iraqi National Alliance (INA), the list that groups the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, the Sadrist movement, and other Shia organisations, would come third with around 60 seats.

The process, however, has been tainted by sectarian politicking aimed at the country's more nationalistic and less confessional elements. A relentless if myopic campaign against former members of the Baath Party has tarnished, perhaps irremediably, the pretence of reconciliation and inclusiveness. The controversial banning, un-banning and re-banning of candidates with often tenuous links to the Baath party will have effects even after the elections are over. In fact, the call for boycott of the upcoming Iraqi elections by Mr al Mutlaq, its most prominent victim, has made headlines and crystallised the frustration of many Iraqis with this blatant manipulation of the electoral process.

Mr al Mutlaq's grievances were given additional credence by the extraordinary admission by senior US officials that the commission that disqualified him, among others, was essentially in the hands of two individuals, including the infamous Ahmad Chalabi, doing the bidding of Iranian-aligned Iraqi parties. Yet, few Iraqis seem ready to follow the exhortations of Mr al Mutlaq, including many in the Sunni community which has steadily lost political power.

This is why Mr al Mutlaq may become his community's sacrificial lamb: the outrage at his exclusion is genuine but the political mobilisation that will ensue can paradoxically boost nationalist and Sunni candidates. In fact, many members of his own party, though sympathising with his fate, have rejected his call. The community is driven by the sense that its voluntary exclusion has damaged its standing and ability to shape the country's identity, and that the armed struggle has not only been counterproductive but has also targeted the wrong enemy (the physical occupier, the US, rather than the political one, Iran).

The fight for Iraq's future is ongoing. Pro-Iranian politicians may have been able to exclude some of their opponents, but overall, they have had suffered significant setbacks. The limits of Iranian influence were made plainly obvious by the Iraqi parliament's approval of the Status of Forces Agreement with the US despite Iranian objections, by the bad performance of pro-Iranian parties at the provincial elections of 2009 and by the decision of Mr al Maliki not to join a unified Shia alliance. It is entirely possible that Iran's allies have used the de-Ba'athification committee to counter these blows and rising anti-Iranian feelings among the population.

Warnings that an Iranian take-over of Iraq is imminent may be smart politics but they are overly pessimistic. In fact, a look at the various electoral slates shows how fragmented the Iraqi scene has become. Perhaps the biggest mistake is to continue to read Iraqi politics uniquely through the prism of sectarian rivalries. Mr Allawi met the Saudi monarch, King Abdullah, on Saturday in a highly symbolic wink to the Sunni community. Mr al Maliki himself has met one of his Sunni partners, the defence minister Abdel Qader Obeidi, who was disqualified for old ties to the Baath. Mr al Maliki was not too pleased with the ban, but fearing he could lose his share of his Shia base to the INA, he ended up supporting it.

Left to their own devices, the Iraqis may well replicate the stalemated and dysfunctional politics of Lebanon, where delicate sectarian considerations hinder progress on governance issues until violence flares up. There is little doubt that the US ability to determine political outcomes in Iraq has considerably shrunk, but US pressure is what made the holding of the elections on time possible. The Americans, however, are looking for ways to extricate themselves from Iraq and are increasingly reluctant to manage its politics. In Washington's view, nothing must be allowed to disrupt the gradual US withdrawal from Iraq, a key objective of the Obama administration. The US has been unwilling to question the legitimacy of the electoral process, although the top US commander in Iraq, Gen Ray Odierno, said on Monday that the US could slow its military drawdown if needed. The appearance of Iraqi sovereignty and political progress has indeed become a central element of its exit strategy - another is a standing Iraqi government.

The results of the election will not be the final litmus test of its success. The formation of a new cabinet also promises to be an excruciating affair.