What kind of coalition government will emerge from Iraq's March 7 national elections? Initial reports indicate Prime Minister Noori al-Maliki's supporters won a plurality of the vote (perhaps a third), with former interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's "secular list" in second place. An Iraqi political analyst I spoke with said post-election political negotiations are underway, and the new coalition arrangements will clarify by early to mid-April.
Whether dubbed horse-trading or camel-haggling, the post-election process of parliamentary coalition building is another signal that open, democratic politics -- with its frustrating uncertainties, compromise and concessions -- are emerging in Iraq. The violent whim of the dictator no longer rules.
"Emerging" is the operative word. Iraq's institutions remain fragile. Corrupt business practices and bribery threaten public trust in the nascent government. While the Iraqi Army has demonstrated increasing self-sufficiency in conducting internal security operations (beginning with Operation Charge of the Knights in March 2008), police forces (especially local departments) are at best iffy organizations. Though Iraqi Kurdish leaders express strong support for the Baghdad government, complex and potentially violent administrative problems (the city of Kirkuk, for example) are unresolved.
External enemies threaten Iraq. The Khomeinist thugocracy controlling Iran fears Iraq's democracy, for it gives Iranian opposition Green Movement activists a Middle Eastern model of palpable democratic political change. So the mullahs meddle, with guns and money. Iranian intelligence agents definitely support Shia Arab gangsters in Iraq and may well aid Iraqi Sunni extremists. The Iranian nuclear weapons program is as much a threat to Iraq as it is to Israel --perhaps more so, since the Iraqis are the Iranians' ancient antagonists.
Baathist Syria continues to provide a haven for "former regime elements" -- bigshots in Saddam Hussein's horrid tyranny. The tyrant's exiled minions have cash filched from the Iraqi people during the dictatorship. There is reason to believe they help both pro-Saddam and al-Qaida terrorists in Iraq.
Indeed, terrorist bombs (most detonated in Baghdad, so television crews could cover the sensational carnage) scarred the elections, but the Iraqi people went to the polls. Iraqi voters once again waved ink-stained fingers, as they did in January 2005 when Iraq conducted its first national election and the Iraqi people demonstrated they were prepared to die to forward Iraq's liberating political experiment.
It is regrettable that so many privileged citizens in free societies dismissed and denigrated those groundbreaking elections. The 2010 elections provide an appropriate time for the cultural and ethnic snobs (and snob is a kind word) who declared that democratic politics were beyond Iraqi capabilities to issue a series of abject, groveling apologies. The most reprehensible faction in this defeatist crowd is the ignorant clot of hard-left propagandists and faculty-club chumps who swore the Iraqis were better off under Saddam Hussein's vicious tyranny. The election serves as a teaching moment for these purveyors of fascism and inhumanity.
Given Iraq's democratic promise, the external threats it faces and its internal fragility, the Obama administration must reconsider its "hard and fast" withdrawal timetable for combat forces.
The turmoil in neighboring Iran, which began in June 2009, is reason enough for Obama to offer to amend his August deadline. There are other issues as well, such as ensuring adequate defense of Iraqi air space. The Iraqi Air Force currently flies prop planes and helicopters. Let the new Iraqi governing coalition make the decision about the retention of combat forces.
Treating the Iraqis as allies capable of assessing changing conditions would be truly smart diplomacy. Iraq needs a reliable American partner, and to promote genuine peace in the Middle East, America sorely needs a democratic Iraqi ally.