BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq held a provincial election on Saturday without a major attack in the country, a sign that years of sectarian slaughter and insurgency may truly be fading into the past and greater security is taking hold.
However, the fact the election had to take place behind barbed wire and that four provinces did not participate were a reminder that Iraq is still a long way from joining the ranks of stable democracies.
In addition, the true test of Iraq’s increasing stability is not so much that a relatively peaceful election took place but whether the losers will quietly hand over power and patronage to the winners, analysts said.
“Fear, intimidation and the exclusion of four governorates including Kirkuk are stark reminders that normalcy has not returned to Iraq,” said Hans von Sponeck, a former U.N. coordinator for Iraq. “Election results should be judged with this in mind.”
Preliminary results may not be issued for three to five days and final results not for a month.
U.S. forces that invaded Iraq in 2003 to oust Saddam Hussein must withdraw by the end of 2011 under a bilateral security pact signed by the previous U.S. administration of George W. Bush.
President Barack Obama would like the pullout to occur faster. During his campaign, he promised to be out of Iraq within 16 months of taking office in January. The U.S. military has included the 16-month option among its battle plans.
The success of Iraqi police and soldiers in maintaining security for the provincial election might make it easier for U.S. officials to countenance a speedier withdrawal.
Al Qaeda and other Sunni Islamist militants who battled U.S. forces after the invasion have been driven out of much of the country since Sunni Arab tribal chiefs in the vast western desert province of Anbar turned on them.
The insurgents have been making a stand in the still volatile provinces of Nineveh and Diyala, where Sunni voters boycotted the last elections in 2005 and were subsequently largely excluded from power.
If Sunni Arabs in Nineveh, including the shattered city of Mosul, manage to claw back clout on the provincial council from minority Kurds, resentment among Sunnis that has benefited al Qaeda might subside.
If, however, Sunni aspirations are frustrated by a poor performance among divided Sunni political groups, or alleged intimidation by Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, then Kurd-Arab tensions could grow, and potentially tip Iraq into its next ethno-sectarian conflict.
The main flashpoint between Kurds and Arabs is Kirkuk, where the election was indefinitely postponed because the sides could not agree to rules.
In Diyala and in Anbar, the electoral fortunes of Sunnis who previously sided with the insurgency may also determine if they remain peaceful.
“The key is really whether the parties can come to a pact that cements these past spoilers and would-be spoilers into the Iraqi state structure,” said Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group think-tank.
Prime Minister Maliki will have been hoping that his Dawa Party and its allies in the State of Law coalition do well against his main Shi’ite rivals, the powerful Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.
Their performance will be an indicator of his chances of renewing his mandate in a parliamentary vote at year’s end.
If Maliki comes out of the provincial vote with too much momentum, however, that could be perilous for him.
“If he comes out of this too strong, that will trigger a sustained move against him,” said Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at the University of London.
The election campaign was enthusiastic.
The independent electoral commission said it fined three party lists for unspecified campaign violations but added it had received very few complaints about actual vote buying.
Nevertheless, election day was marked by complaints from many Iraqis that they failed to find their names on voter rolls at election stations and had not been allowed to cast ballots.
The electoral authority is expected to take up to a month to adjudicate all complaints. It may not be until then that the legitimacy of Saturday’s provincial election becomes clear.
Editing by Richard Balmforth