Election dynamics still look murky. I for one don’t think that anyone can call it at this stage. But there have been some discernable trends in the last ten days, but it is anyone’s guess whether these would stay in place all the way to March 7th.
What everyone seems to agree on is that the election campaign looks civilized and tidy, what with all the restrictions and stipulations put in place by the Electoral Commission on what is accepted and what is prohibited by way of advertisements in the streets. The other thing I was personally excited about is that one can enter one's family food ration number and the number of the ration distributor online at the Commission's website to find the ballot center where one can vote. Seeing my name with my electoral number on the computer screen, with directions to where I'm supposed to vote, made me feel a little more reassured that the process is reasonably organized, and thus it may be harder to fudge the results by those inclined to do so.
The De-Ba’athification stunt proved hugely popular for the Iraqi National Alliance (Hakim, Ja’afari, Sadrists, Chalabi), and at least for now, it seems to have galvanized Shias around this slate to Maliki’s detriment. Bolani’s slate, although very well funded and starring some household names (…or at least those made prominent in the last few years, especially on the Sunni side: Abu Risha, Mashhadani, Ahmad Abdel-Ghaffour al-Samara’i), isn’t having much traction. What seems to have stuck to Bolani is the assertion that the hand-held bomb detectors at checkpoints don’t really work; the Ministry of Interior is being held responsible. The problem with this accusation is that Iraqis remember it every time they are snarled in traffic due to checkpoints, which is most of the day.
Sistani told Shias today to go out and vote, and this is in the INA's favor, since many people who may have opted to skip the vote out of despair of achieving any tangible results in their lives, are now compelled by religious injunction to go to the ballot box. And it's no stretch to believe that those who listen to Sistani's orders may be default voters for the INA.
Sunnis have galvanized behind Allawi, but Allawi’s Shia standing is hemorrhaging because he’s associated with Mutlag, Tariq al-Hashemi and Dhafir al-Ani.
I predict that all this may change in a week’s time. Shias may begin to feel that the Ba’athist threat (…as characterized by the INA) has been neutralized with the exclusion of Mutlag & Co, and thus it may quickly cease to become an election issue. Apart from Hashemi, who isn’t popular among Sunnis to begin with, Allawi has been left without any significant Sunni partners, excepting Rafi’ al-Isawi, the current Vice Prime Minister, and this may lead Sunnis to drift away from Allawi’s slate and throw their support behind more formidable Sunni leaders.
Otherwise, plenty of issues may emerge in the next couple of weeks, notably corruption. I find it incredible that while Mutlag was ousted, the former convicted Electricity Minister Ayham al-Samara’i is being allowed to run in Salahuddin Province. He was a beneficiary of a general amnesty for criminals, but the law clearly states that a candidate for parliament may not be a former convict. What’s also surprising is that Tariq Khalaf al-Abdullah al-Halbousi is allowed to run in Anbar Province on Bolani’s list. Al-Halbousi is a businessman who was the first cousin of Muhammad Khudheir al-Halbousi, a top mukhaberat director once in charge of assassinations. Tariq al-Khalaf was seen by the Iraqi opposition as a key component of the mukhaberat’s front companies outside of Iraq’s borders, as well as a business partner of Uday Saddam Hussein.
Very soon, it may become open season to release all sorts of incriminating documents that the Public Integrity Commission has filed away against current and former ministers and parliamentarians, which were not acted upon due to issues of immunity and political expediency.
My sense is that nothing is set in stone. But if one takes a snapshot now, one would detect the exponential rise of the INA’s and Allawi’s fortunes, while those of Maliki and Bolani are in freefall. Odierno’s statements against Chalabi and Ali al-Lami today, accusing of them of collusion with Iran, are unfortunate. What they expose is America’s impotence to do anything about it, and that only fortifies the impression here that the Americans have played themselves out of the game. Even Sunnis, happy to see the Americans siding with them, are feeling increasingly helpless as they see someone like Odierno making caustic statements, only to have those he is accusing respond with equally caustic statements without any retaliation, which is impossible at this stage. This escalation helps Chalabi but weakens the U.S. role overall. It makes no sense to me that the Americans were so easily lured into this rhetorical trap during an election campaign. Chalabi was on Al-Hurra saying that he is eternally grateful for Odierno, who is forgiven for everything he does or says, since he was the U.S. general in charge of catching Saddam.
Although there is general anxiety, no one believes that sectarian tensions would get out of hand. Experienced hands don’t see a return to violence on any significant scale, not withstanding what a few frazzled and perennially mistaken Western journalists are writing these days. Abu Omar al-Baghdadi has promised to kill voters so that they do not fall into the sinful mistake of voting, which is a no-no with Allah, according to al-Baghdadi. But the Islamic State of Iraq is always trying to find excuses to kill people, so there’s really nothing new there.
I was surprised at how quickly people shrugged off Mutlag’s exclusion from the race, both by Shias (happy) and Sunnis (not too happy). That news cycle was swiftly superseded by Baha’ al-‘Araji’s quip against Abu Bakr al-Siddik, the first Sunni caliph, and Sunni calls to have the Sadrist MP excluded too. If anything, it shows that Mutlag failed to cement his credentials as the ‘leader’ of the Sunnis, and that this role is still vacant.
More will follow.
NB: Ambassador Chris Hill is on TV speaking live, and he seems to be backing away from Odierno's statements, highlighting all the positive elements of this election. He too is shrugging off the De-Ba'athification issue.
Update on Amb. Hill: says De-Ba'athification issue behind us, but agrees with what Odierno said about Chalabi. It seems Odierno is accusing Chalabi of colluding with Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. I don't get it, if al-Muhandis is such a nefarious figure then why didn't the Americans arrest him when he was frolicking around Baghdad two weeks ago. He's an MP and is currently a candidate for the INA, no. 17 in Baghdad Province. His arrest warrant is still in effect, and his immunity can be revoked by obtaining the signature of the speaker of the parliament only, since parliament is out of its legislative session (see Article 63/2/c of the Iraqi Constitution). So why isn't he behind bars? Again, this only exposes American weakness. For more on al-Muhandis, see this post from 2006.