The Magazine

A Drama-Free Election

The Iraqi vote was a victory for Prime Minister Maliki. Now he'll need to do something for the Shiite masses.

Feb 16, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 21 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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Sitting in front of the golden, double-domed Kazimiyya shrine, one of Iraq's Shiite pilgrimage sites, I asked a young man who was politely scrutinizing me what he thought about the provincial elections going on around us. "It's good for people to vote," he said, intently staring at my green socks on a dark carpet. Since he didn't have any purple ink on a finger, I asked why he hadn't voted. Around 8 percent of the Baghdad electorate is still displaced. Earlier that day I'd seen angry men at a voting station complaining about a registration process that disenfranchised many of those who'd been uprooted by the country's internecine strife. Poor young men were probably those least likely to vote.

"I'm not sure whom I want," he answered, raising his eyes to mine.

"Do you like the prime minister?" I continued. He and the other young men around him indicated brusquely that Nuri al-Maliki was not high on their list. "Why not?" I asked, hoping to crack the reticence that a foreigner often still encounters talking with Iraqis. "Hasn't he helped to bring some peace?"

The young man, who had a little button on his jacket, perhaps indicating an official status within the shrine, answered flatly, "He has not helped us."

Although the voting returns for Kazimiyya, a district on the northeastern edge of the capital and once the home of Baghdad's Shiite elite, are still not confirmed, the official word is that Maliki captured around 38 percent of the vote in Baghdad. Many of the faithful at the shrine--lying on the prayer rugs that covered the white marble terrace outside, or among the small legion of the one-legged, wheelchair-bound, and physically deformed who'd come to beg God for mercy, or among the slow-moving stream of men and women worshippers who kissed and touched with purple fingers the sacred wooden doors--had no doubt voted for Maliki. A new strongman, not known for his piety, had finally arisen along the Tigris, and Kazimiyya, an extremely pious district, gave him its qualified democratic blessing.

Young Shiite men, the natural constituency of Moktada al-Sadr, the scion of Iraq's most beloved clerical family and the Iraqi whom Americans and Iraq's Sunni Arabs hate most, had given Maliki his first political break. Without Sadr and his supporters, Maliki would never have risen in parliament. Without Sadr, the Americans would never have discovered and crowned Maliki, after a very fitful beginning, as the indispensable leader who could show as much zeal fighting refractory Shiites as he could battling Sunni insurgents and holy warriors. Sadr's allies, whom I strongly suspected were standing before me at the shrine, were, at least for now, lost in the ironies of post-Saddam Iraq.

Making sense of Iraq's January 31 provincial elections isn't easy. That they were an enormous success for Iraq, and for the United States, is certainly true. When remembering 2006, when Iraqis were dying like flies in what the New York Times's Dexter Filkins described as a "symphony of suicide bombers," and when even staunch pro-war American liberals and conservatives saw the invasion as misbegotten, I grow more respectful of my old history teacher Martin Dickson, who counseled to measure time, especially in the Middle East, in centuries, not years. In the streets of Baghdad, especially those deeply scarred by violence, where women and children now bustle about well-stocked stores and an almost incomprehensible array of political posters has been plastered, it's difficult to comprehend how a former pro-war liberal like Peter Beinart could opine, only two weeks before the provincial elections, that the Iraq invasion remained "one of the great blunders in American foreign policy history."