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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It's not a view, even with all of the horrific suffering that has occurred in the last six years, that has much traction in Iraq. At least not with the Shiites, who represent around 60 percent of the country's population, or the Kurds, who account for another 20 percent of Iraq's 28 million souls. Antiwar Shiites and Kurds are certainly out there--if a parent loses a child to war or sees a child disfigured by a suicide bomber, then nothing in this world could seem of higher value. And many Shiite Arabs and Kurds were Baathists, who understandably pine for yester-year. But what is striking in Iraq--at least among the Shiites with whom I've spent my time on this trip--is the seemingly unalterable conviction that the fall of Saddam, no matter what happened afterward, was a wondrous event. From the Shiite rich to the Shiite poor, from the most secular to the most religious, from those who have sought a terrible revenge against the Sunnis to those who have mourned their dead peacefully, I have heard the same word to describe their world since March 2003: mu'jiza ("a miracle").

Some Americans find that word hard to utter. Yet it is not too soon to suggest that Iraqis--perhaps because they have gone through hell--understand better each year that voting does matter, even if not nearly as much as they once thought. Iraqis just may have reached a point of no return on representative government. True, democracy could still fail here. Little would-be Saddams are everywhere. Inside government offices, they thrive. The complexity and corruption of doing business here boggles the mind: Listening to Iraqi businessmen complain about the predatory habits of officials becomes boring because the Iraqi practice is so crude, direct, omnipresent, and merciless. At least two generations of Iraqis were raised to brutally lord it over their fellow man if given the chance. Millions of men were thrown into the Iraqi Army in the last 50 years, when the military learned, with ever greater severity, to oppress and feed on civilians. (This is the same Sunni officer corps that official Washington and the press are now certain should have been maintained after the invasion.)

Yet, despite all this, even the would-be Saddams really want to vote. They want their votes counted, even if they are less concerned about the ballots of others. I listened to a conversation of low- and middle-ranking Shiite army officers on Election Day. These men, who'd voted a few days earlier, were proud and excited to be a small part of an election. My attempts to get them to tell me whom they'd voted for went nowhere. They clearly saw themselves--and this is a first in Iraqi history--as the people's guardians. For Iraq, for anywhere in the Muslim Middle East, this dynamic--this struggle between the authoritarian and democratic traditions--is something to watch. Only the deaf, dumb, blind, or politically perverse can't see that Iraqis have caught the democratic bug. A military strongman might still arise in Mesopotamia, but his climb to the top would surely produce a nonsectarian civil war. Too many Iraqis--too many with guns--now want a say in how they are governed.

"I want the Americans to stay for a long time," Thamir al-Tamimi said, as he slowly rubbed his small, soft hands. Dressed casually in a sweater, slacks, and loafers, dark-haired and slightly cherub-faced, he would have fit comfortably into any well-heeled Western hotel lobby. He'd summoned a Lebanese journalist friend and me to the Rashid Hotel, the Green Zone's primary watering hole for Iraqi VIPs. A courteous staff of young Iraqis run the establishment, which appears clean, proper, and deadly dull, while Iraqi soldiers and Peruvian mercenaries hired by Triple Canopy, the international security firm that the U.S. embassy and the Iraqi government use to patrol the zone, guard all of the hotel's entrances. Some Turkish VIP was visiting, which put even more security into the lobby and the lifeless garden at the back of the hotel.