Al-Anbar Election Fallout

This piece first aired in February, 2009, as part of the show, “And the Winner Is…”

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    HOST: This is War News Radio. After Iraq’s provincial elections went off largely without a hitch last week, most observers breathed a sigh of relief. But in Anbar province, the wait for voting results turned ugly when a questionable leak of early returns showed an upset in the making. The former front runners claimed fraud was to blame, and threatened that “al-Anbar will be the new Darfur” if the results were allowed to stand. Elizabeth Threlkeld reports on the post-election fallout in Anbar and what it will mean for the future of the provincial council.

    ELIZABETH THRELKELD: The story Maan Khater tells about voting in Anbar’s recent provincial elections is a happy one. He and his father and brother walked from their house in downtown Ramadi to a nearby polling station. There, they found their names on the registration list, waited in line for a few minutes, and cast their ballots.

    MAAN KHATER: Election day was a great day. I live next to three election centers, so when I stand on my doorstep I see people all day coming to the election center. It was really nice to see everybody walking with their families and their kids. Everybody was happy because everybody got the chance to participate in this election.

    ELIZABETH THRELKELD: Khater, a Unit Manager with USAID, says this election stood in stark contrast to the previous provincial elections, back in January of 2005.

    MAAN KHATER: The insurgents were everywhere, and some of the neighborhoods, they closed the neighborhoods. They didn’t want anybody to go to the election cernters. I was lucky because I live next to a school which was an election center, so I just crossed the street and I voted. But it was not a very good experience to talk about.

    ELIZABETH THRELKELD: This time around, voting was far more secure, with vehicle curfews in place and a big police presence. More people voted, too, with participation estimated at around forty percent. There were allegations of problems at the polls, but it wasn’t until the incumbent party claimed victory that other candidates started crying foul. Opposition groups demanded a recount and threatened to take up arms or even set up their own government if the early returns were made official. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki sent a representative to the province to try to calm the political waters, but the situation remained tense throughout the week. Ramadi English teacher Thaar al-Dulaimi was frustrated by what he saw as political posturing.

    THAAR AL-DULAIMI: Each party say to the other that, “You are the loser. I am the winner.” Everybody accused the other that they faked the election.

    ELIZABETH THRELKELD: Understanding why these rumored results sparked such a reaction from Anbar’s political players requires taking a closer look – not at this round of voting, but at the last time Anbar’s residents were asked to elect a provincial council. In 2005, out of over a million people in the largely-Sunni province, not even 4,000 cast ballots. Many Sunnis chose to boycott the vote – some to protest the invasion and their ouster from power and others in response to threats against voters made by Sunni religious leaders and insurgent groups. Only one major party – the Iraqi Islamic Party – campaigned in Anbar, and it won all 41 council seats in the province. According to Dr. Michael Knights, head of the Iraq Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, this was hardly a recipe for success.

    MICHAEL KNIGHTS: Anbar province has been under a political cloud since 2005 because of the very unusual circumstances that the provincial council was formed under. Now in the intervening years between 2005 and now, the Iraqi Islamic Party has come under attack by the various tribal groups who contend that the Iraqi Islamic Party was not representative of them, that is should have not been given control of the provincial council and also that it cooperated with the occupation, with the U.S. military.

    ELIZABETH THRELKELD: Those tribal groups are traditional power brokers in Anbar. al-Dulaimi explains they resented losing out to a political party that many saw as being tied to closely to Baghdad.

    THAAR AL-DULAIMI: Ramadi is a tribe country. Islamic Party is not from Ramadi. They just stay in Baghdad and do nothing for Ramadi.

    ELIZABETH THRELKELD: Beginning in late 2005, many of Anbar’s tribal groups joined forces in the fight against al-Qaeda in Iraq, forming the so-called Awakening movement. They gained widespread support as a result, and, Knights explains, they started to enter Anbar’s political scene through the back door.

    MICHAEL KNIGHTS: When the Awakening movements began to spring up, they were brought into government by the creation of informal councils which sat alongside the Anbar provincial council and worked in collaboration with it. And through this means many of the tribal groups felt that they had some stake in the system and that their voices were being listened too, but they have always ambitions to take over the provincial council and become the formal leaders of Anbar province.

    ELIZABETH THRELKELD: The Awakening groups received support from the U.S. in their fight against al-Qaeda, and both the groups and officials in Washington saw the 2009 provincial elections as a key chance for them to translate their influence in Anbar into political power. But, Knights says, it wasn’t a smooth rode to victory.

    MICHAEL KNIGHTS: The various Awakening movements and their related Sons of Iraq militia units started to break up into different camps. They have never been a particularly homogeneous force, they have always been personality-driven, run by tribal leaders who have strong personalities and rivalries with each other, and as a result it was very easy for these various Awakening movements to be split apart by the Iraqi Islamic Party which is one fairly well-organized party.

    ELIZABETH THRELKELD: This splintering of the tribal coalition was blamed when the Iraqi Islamic Party announced early in the week that, against the odds, they had defeated the tribal groups yet again. That’s what started those threats of violence and the political posturing. But when the Independent High Electoral Commission released its results a few days later, everyone was in for a surprise. The apparent winner of the Anbar vote as of February 5th was neither the Iraqi Islamic Party nor the tribes. Instead, the Iraqi National Project, a moderate, more secular group came out on top, with the Tribal Coalition in second and the Iraqi Islamic Party a close third. These results seem to have diffused political tensions between the tribes and the Iraqi Islamic Party as neither won an outright victory. Now, parties are beginning the work of putting together the Governing Council – a task which will require building coalitions with some of their former competitors. In the face of the last week’s political upheaval in Anbar, Electoral Commission Chairman Faraj al-Hayderi expressed frustration, but not surprise.

    FARAJ Al-HAYDERI: In Iraq’s elections, you have 14,500 candidates, and they are competing for 440 seats. This means that about 14,100 will lose. This is not the United States, where the loser congratulates the winner. They will blame me and the Electoral Commission for their loss, and will accuse the winning political slates.

    ELIZABETH THRELKELD: There’s no question this round of provincial elections was an improvement on the last in Anbar – with more voters going to the polls, more parties on the ballot and better security all around. But it might be awhile before concession speeches replace threats and accusations on the political stage. For War News Radio, I’m Elizabeth Threlkeld.