The Iraqi parliament's vote today to hold local elections by Jan. 31 won quick praise by an American official but is actually a reminder of the decreased leverage the United States has here and that, in fact, the elections are in danger.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki promised more than a year ago that the balloting would be held by the end of 2007. That didn't happen. Then the parliament this spring voted to set an Oct. 31 vote. By late summer, no one really expected that to happen, in part because the country still had no rules to govern the voting. Today, in a bill meant to set those rules, parliament chose a new deadline, Jan. 31. State Department deputy spokesman Robert Wood told the Associated Press that the vote was a "positive sign" of "maturing Iraqi democracy."At this point, it's more a ratification of the fact that Iraqi leaders don't seem to want the vote as much as the Americans do and it's possibly an ominous sign that the relative calm of the past few months could again deteriorate.
The elections would choose the country's provincial councils, which will then select Iraq's powerful governors. The people holding those jobs now were chosen in 2005, when the incipient political system was at its crudest. Voters selected from big party lists that did not disclose the actual candidates. The winners were considered barely representative of the people and new elections, most observers hope, will be a huge step toward bringing alienated (i.e. potentially violent) factions into their share of power. (Even with the new January schedule, elections won't be held until later still for the three Kurdish provinces and one province disputed between Kurds and Arabs.)As he was installed in his new job as top commander in Iraq last week, Gen. Ray Odierno called the provincial elections "critical" for bringing stability and emphasized the expectation they would take place this year. The holding of provincial elections is one of the benchmarks Congress required the White House to use in measuring progress in Iraq.But to the major Iraqi parties in power, the prospect of elections probably looks more like a threat. They're loath to admit it but members of mainstream Shiite parties worry they will lose governorships to loyalists of radical cleric Muqtada Sadr. The Sunni minority leaders in the government fear they will lose seats in Sunni areas to upstart tribal factions who take credit for fighting off al Qaeda and barely participated in the vote the last time around.In July, NEWSWEEK talked to Baha al-Araji, one of those disaffected Sadr followers in the parliament, and he accused the leading parties of seeking to keep pushing the date into next year. Then, he said, they will argue that it just makes sense to postpone the local vote and hold it along with national elections for parliament at the end of 2009. It seemed a little conspiratorial at the time but only elections by the new deadline will prove him wrong to suspicious Iraqis.