Outside editorial: Iraqi voters go to the polls as US crosses its fingers

Posted: Monday, March 08, 2010

Early voting began in Iraq on Thursday ahead of Sunday's parliamentary elections. As Dr. Johnson said of the talking dog, the surprise about democracy in Iraq is not that it's done well, but that it is done at all.

Nearly seven years after the U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, Iraq still won't have peaceful, free and fair elections. That's not our fault, but theirs - and perhaps history's.

Thursday's early voting for soldiers and police officers who will be too busy to vote on Sunday had barely begun before bombs started going off.

At least a dozen people were killed and 57 injured in three bombings in Baghdad, two of them outside polling places. The attacks, all blamed on Sunni militants, were expected to continue - no surprise in that the Shiite government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has heavily stacked the process against Shia and Kurdish minorities.

One example: Six thousand candidates filed for 352 seats, and a government elections committee blacklisted 440 of them. They all were Sunni Muslims suspected of having had ties, however tenuous, to the Baathist Party that ruled Iraq under Saddam, who was hanged in December 2006.

Meanwhile, Shiite politician Hakim al-Zamili, who ran a Shiite militia death squad during the chaos that followed the American invasion, is expected to win a seat in parliament.

Perhaps the surest sign that democracy in Iraq is a work in progress: Zamili is on the same election slate as Ahmed Chalabi, who is expected not only to win a seat in parliament but also could be a cabinet minister in the next government.

Chalabi is the American-educated mathematician who, as a leader of the exiled Iraqi National Congress, sold the Bush administration on the idea that Saddam had stockpiled weapons of mass destruction. Once the darling of the U.S. neo-conservative movement, he recently was accused by Gen. Ray Odierno, the U.S. commander in Iraq, of campaigning to increase Iran's influence in Iraq.

Chalabi may turn out to have outsized influence in the next Iraqi government. Prime Minister Maliki's slate is leading in polls, but is not expected to win a majority of the seats. That means Chalabi could have a great deal to say about the makeup of a coalition government.

It's certain that the government will be Shiite. What isn't known is how it will treat the Sunni and Kurdish minorities, and how deep will be the ties it makes with Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

If Iraq again dissolves into sectarian violence - a distinct possibility if the minorities continue to be persecuted - it could dramatically affect President Barack Obama's plans to withdraw 40,000 of the 90,000 U.S. troops that remain in the country by August. The rest are scheduled to leave by the end of next year.

The outline for this script was written long ago. Iraq is two-thirds Shia, and democracy always was going to favor the majority. The only questions were - and still are - whether the rights of the minorities would be respected and how the minorities would respond.

For seven years, the United States has fought for and enforced a fragile peace. Having established a democracy in Iraq, however flawed, we must either abide by its decisions or plan for troops to abide there indefinitely.

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