The million members of Iraq’s security forces head to the polls on Monday and Tuesday, casting their ballots ahead of their compatriots so they can be out in full force on election day, April 30. The government has declared a weeklong holiday to prepare for the vote, and a curfew has been declared on vehicle traffic on the polling day in an attempt to prevent car bombings in crowded areas. Iraqis everywhere will have the opportunity to vote, except in Fallujah.
In that storied city, once again controlled by Al-Qaeda allies, there will be polling centers only in surrounding areas controlled by Iraqi security forces. That means residents like Mustafa Mohammed won’t get the chance to cast ballots.
“I’m not going to vote,” he told Al Jazeera over the phone from Fallujah. “The Iraqi army has closed the roads. There are no negotiations happening [for a truce]. The government wants a military solution, not a political one. We want a political one.”
The United Nations estimates that 400,000 people have fled the violence in Anbar and moved to other parts of the country. Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission says they will still be able to vote for their province, using absentee votes.
That won’t help Mohammed cast a ballot. The Fallujah resident, who said he preferred life under Saddam Hussein, found himself admitting that he longs for the Americans to return.
“If [Prime Minister] Nouri al-Maliki wins again, it’ll be the end for Sunnis in Anbar, Kirkuk, Samarra and Tikrit,” Mohammed said, ticking off other parts of Iraq that are predominantly home to Sunnis and have also experienced much violence. “The Americans were more merciful than the government. They weren’t sectarian.”
The U.S. military launched two offensives in Fallujah in 2004, in which hundreds of Iraqi civilians and insurgents were killed along with dozens of Iraqi and coalition security forces. Government buildings and dozens of homes were destroyed, and the area has struggled to recover. The town that was lost then taken is once again in the hands of Al-Qaeda-affiliated fighters and is in open rebellion against the central government, which is controlled by Shia parties. Fallujah has, since January, been surrounded by Iraqi security forces, but they have been unable to retake the city. To the west, the town of Ramadi is not wholly within rebel hands, nor is it wholly under government control. The predominantly Shia Iraqi security forces have been engaged in clashes with Sunni fighters in various pockets of territory since the beginning of the year.
In Diyala and Kirkuk to the north, there are regular bursts of violence. Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups are running extortion rackets in the northern city of Mosul, reportedly collecting more than $1 million a month from business owners and trucking companies.
As Iraq heads toward its first national elections since the U.S. military withdrew its forces at the end of 2011, deep-rooted sectarian divisions and bloody violence spilling over from neighboring Syria threaten to upend any fragile gains made over the years since Saddam was routed. Parties representing the Shia majority will undoubtedly get the most votes, as they’ve done in every election since the U.S. invasion, but how the numbers break down and whether Maliki will sign on for a third term are open to question. If he makes a deal with other political parties to have majority rule, he may have to step aside as part of the agreement, something Iraqi observers say is a possibility.
Maliki, who has long been accused by critics and even erstwhile allies of harboring dictatorial tendencies since becoming prime minister almost eight years ago, is deeply unpopular among Iraq’s Sunni minority, many of whom received preferential treatment under Saddam, a Sunni.
But the list of grievances against Maliki by Shia voters and political parties is also considerable. He’s been unable — perhaps unwilling — to broker reconciliation talks within parliament, and he’s been blamed for his security forces’ inability to protect civilians from attacks in crowded or commercial areas. A resurgence of sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shias has claimed at least 2,000 lives this year alone. His administration is widely viewed as corrupt and sectarian. Like Saddam before him, Maliki is the commander in chief of a million-strong military and police force. And a number of political opponents — both Shia and Sunni — have been arrested, threatened with violence or sentenced to death in absentia.
Both Tehran and Washington will be closely watching the elections to see how the Shia-dominated south votes. Washington, while preferring Shias with secular points of view, hopes that the winners — whatever their outlook — will show a willingness to negotiate with their Sunni counterparts. It will need to do more work in reaching out, compared with Tehran, which has long-standing ties with most of the Shia contenders and prefers those who are friendly to its regime.
During an April 4 sermon in the Shia holy city of Karbala, cleric Abdul Mahdi al-Karbalai called on Iraqis to vote for officials who would change the country’s “terrible conditions.” He is the main representative for Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraqi Shias’ most revered cleric. Sistani in a fatwa issued in February advised Iraqis to “choose wisely” and opt for those who are working for the people and fighting corruption. While not an outright condemnation of Maliki’s administration, the words weren’t exactly ringing endorsements either. In Iraq’s first national elections after Saddam was deposed, in January 2005, Sistani’s call for people to vote was used as part of the main Shia bloc’s campaign to rally the masses. The bloc became known as Sistani’s list, and its candidates won in a landslide.
That once unified Shia bloc has since splintered, with some groups now opposing Maliki, among them parties led by supporters of Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, headed by Sayed Ammar al-Hakim. If they manage a majority between them, Maliki may be pushed out.
If Maliki’s State of Law coalition manages to secure enough seats and he gets a third term, one of his first priorities will be to resolve the crisis in Anbar. In an interview with BBC Arabic, Maliki said Saudi Arabia was interfering in Iraq by allowing foreign fighters to cross its land to take up arms against his security forces. “There are many Nigerian and Chadian mercenaries who are paid money to enter Iraq,” he told the network. He rejected accusations that Iraq was part of a regional alliance with neighboring Iran.
He may need to reach out to Sunni and Kurdish parties if he doesn’t get the seats he needs. He will again need to assure Sunnis they will be more included in governing, a promise he failed to keep in the past. The Kurdish parties and their regional government in the north have grown frustrated with Maliki and his central government over oil revenues and Baghdad’s response to Kurdish moves to launch an export pipeline that would run independently of the south. In response to what he has called their unilateralism, Maliki has been cutting the Kurds out of their share of the oil revenues in the federal budget.
The fight over oil will only get worse. With over 3.5 million barrels of oil production a day, Iraq is the sixth-largest producer in the world, and its output is expected to continue rising. This time around, the Kurds aren’t running in their traditional unified bloc, but once the dealmaking begins after the votes are in, they’re expected to fall in together and bargain as one.
With the relentless violence in Syria as a backdrop and multiplier, Iraq’s population is becoming even more militarized against itself — the wounds of the recent civil war still far too fresh to heal. For many Iraqis, the reality of an ongoing and escalating civil war eclipses the promise of democratic politics. And that may reinforce Maliki’s prospects. “The government has failed right now on security,” said Nabil Salem, a professor living in Baghdad. “They are definitely benefiting from this politically. There’s an expectation that once the elections happen, security will be better. It’s all about security.”