All Writings
January 31, 2005

The Unintended Consequences Of Iraq’s Election

Although the elections in Iraq have given the Iraqi people a reason to hope that a better and more secure future lies ahead, how will this historic event unfold in months and years to come remains to be seen. Considering the repeated mishaps and miscalculations of the Bush administration before, during, and since the Iraq war, it is doubtful that this administration could fully anticipate some of the unintended consequences of the Iraq elections and what path to take to extricate itself with dignity.

Iraq will be the first Arab country to be ruled by Shiite Muslims, a fact that will dramatically change inter-Arab relations, with major ripple effects across the entire Middle East. A Shiite- dominated Iraq will raise special concerns both in countries with substantial Shiite minorities, like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and in countries where they form a majority, like Bahrain and Lebanon. In all these countries, Shiites will now be emboldened to openly challenge the current regimes, giving rise to an anti-government militancy. Meanwhile, countries like Jordan, Syria, and the smaller Gulf states will feel directly threatened by the Shiite sweep in Iraq and thus may opt to throw more support to the Sunni insurgency. And then there's Turkey, which fears the effects the election may have on Iraq's Kurdish population which insists on maintaining its autonomous rule and how that might inflame Turkey's own Kurdish minority.

The election in Iraq will also create a contiguous landmass populated by nearly 100 million Shiites, with more than 30 percent of the world's known oil reserves over which the influence of Iran will be substantial. Notwithstanding the Iraqi Shiite clergy's nationalist tendencies and independence, they feel far greater kinship to Iran's Shiites than to their Sunni brethren, whose regimes have systematically oppressed and persecuted them. It should be expected that Iran, which has already benefitted from America's mishaps in Iraq, will feel freer to meddle in Iraqi affairs as well as in those of other Gulf states, a most unsettling prospect for many countries in the region. In addition, that the elections were even held will naturally raise the expectations of all Iraqis who risked their lives to vote. As they wake up the day after, their euphoria will quickly fade as they realize the dismal reality of their daily life still exists. Shortages of clean water will continue, the long lines for gasoline may actually get longer, and electricity will remain sporadic in many parts of the country. In addition, health services are in shambles with no hope of their being reconstructed in the foreseeable future, and several months after the invasion of Faluja, 300 thousand Iraqis, mostly Sunnis, remain refugees. Together, these create a recipe for continuing violence that, in any event, should escalate in the wake of the meager Sunni participation which, from their perspective, has delegitimized the electoral process. And this in turn raises the possibility of the Shiites taking matters into their own hands to protect their hard-fought and overdue victory, giving rise to a dangerous sectarian violence bordering on civil war.

The other fact the Bush administration is also quick to dismiss is that elections do not automatically translate into democracy. Two years after the occupation, Iraq still lacks democratic institutions; there is no law and order, tribalism reigns, and will continue to do so as long as the American occupation continues, as the public will be highly suspicious of government officials. Moreover, the wrangling over writing the new constitution will soon begin, with the Shiites determined to maintain their control of government institutions and to preserve themselves as the dominant political force that will shape Iraq's future. How will the Shiites reconcile their hunger for power with the Kurdish people's determination to maintain their autonomy or with the Sunnis' profound sense of loss at relinquishing power, from which they are not likely to recover, remains to be seen. One thing is certain, however: violence will continue to punctuate the political process and could bring it to a halt.

Many prominent Iraqis concede that regardless of the outcome of the elections, it was prematurely held and had the Bush administration not sought instant and rather artificial solutions, many of the problems here outlined could have been avoided. No serious efforts were made to work with leading Sunni clergymen who could have used their influence with the insurgents. Given time, many segments of the Sunni community might have heeded their leaders' advice and given the political process a chance. Instead, the administration chose to use brute force to try to force the insurgents into submission, as in Faluja, thereby alienating rather than coopting many of the Sunni leadership.

According to every expert analysis of what to expect in post-election Iraq, a continued U.S. occupation will fuel violence, making it impossible for the Iraqis to sort out their problems themselves. If this election is to become a milestone in the political development in Iraq, and conceivably resonate positively elsewhere in the region, then the Bush administration must sooner than later declare that America's task is done and it is now up to the Iraqi people to determine their own destiny.

As the number of American casualties approaches 1,500, there is simply no reason for more Americans or Iraqis to die for an elusive cause after the election. This administration must forget about its grandiose ideas of democratizing the entire Arab world. If anything, most of the regional players will entrench and protect their power base rather than open up to change, fearing precisely what the administration is advocating and determined not to pay the price that the Iraqis have paid.

Now is the moment for the Bush administration to establish a time line for the gradual withdrawal of American forces and so extract itself from Iraq with dignity. Thus, it will disabuse the Arab people of the notion that the war was about oil and to serve Israel's interests. The United States will not only avoid getting bogged down in a civil war that its very presence could help precipitate, but begin to restore in earnest America's tarnished image throughout the Arab world.