January 2009 is shaping up as a bellwether month for Iraq. The country's parliament passed a long-awaited provincial elections law in September (CSMonitor), clearing the way for voting in most of Iraq's provinces before January 31. Provincial elections are seen as a critical step to mending fences between Iraq's factions, and bringing Sunnis into the democratic process. "Nothing is more central to a functioning democracy than free and fair elections," President Bush said following the Iraqi decision. The Wall Street Journal said the deal amounted to Baghdad undoing "the biggest political knot in the country."
Yet some experts see reason for caution. Unlike previous elections that mandated seats for Christians, Yazidis, and other minorities, the current law contains no quotas. Hundreds of Iraqi Christians took to the street to protest that omission (Aswat al-Iraq) in the days after the vote. Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy to Iraq, said the election law was "a good day for Iraq" but acknowledged the minority issue has left a "dark cloud" (IHT). Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki himself appealed for parliament to reconsider (Alsumaria) the issue.
Another potential sticking point is a decision to delay voting in Kirkuk and three Kurdish provinces. Kurdish leaders agreed that parliament will form a committee (AP) to review property disputes within the northern oil-rich city of Kirkuk, and separate elections are to be held in Kirkuk later in the year. But recent clashes between Kurdish and Shiite forces in Diyala province and ongoing disputes over Kirkuk suggest tensions are fraying between "once resolute political allies," writes one commentator in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram. Marc Lynch, a professor of Middle Eastern politics at George Washington University, sees some reason for optimism. He points to provisions such as an open-list vote; quotas for female candidates; bans on the use of some religious imagery; and restrictions on campaigning in mosques, shrines, "and other houses of worship." Yet in a new interview with CFR.org, Lynch cautions against viewing elections as a "magic bullet" that will resolve all the political problems in Iraq.
Even if provincial elections are held on time, Iraq could remain politically divided. In Anbar province, Sunni Awakening Council leaders are expected to run in local elections, offering a stiff challenge to Sunni party leaders currently in power. Similarly, followers of the powerful anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in southern Iraq could erode support for the two main Shiite parties, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and the Dawa Party of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Sam Parker of the United States Institute of Peace writes that the voting system will continue to favor highly organized, established parties.
It remains to be seen what the vote will mean for Iraqi security. Violence is already down in many parts of the country. A Pentagon report released on September 30 says violence against civilians was down 75 percent between June and August 2008, compared to the same period in 2007.
On October 1, Washington transferred control of 54,000 Sunni tribal fighters (al-Jazeera), who have played an instrumental role corralling al-Qaeda in Iraq, to the Iraqi government. But the Pentagon report above says Maliki's commitment to incorporating these groups into the central government remains unclear. "The Kurds and Sunnis are obstacles to the ruling coalition's ambitions for a Shiite Islamic state," writes Peter Galbraith, a former U.S. ambassador to Croatia who has worked in Iraq, in the New York Review of Books. But other observers are less gloomy. "A new Iraq is coming into being," the International Herald Tribune predicted in a post-election law editorial. "It will not need or want a foreign army of occupation on its soil."