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Iraq Elections: Will Democracy Trump Violence?

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Iraq is preparing for Saturday's provincial elections, the first elections in the country since 2005 and widely viewed as a test of the country's stability and security forces. Iraq went on lockdown Friday as the nation braced for the elections, the AP reports.

Iraq imposed a nationwide security lockdown Friday before key regional elections with blanket measures not seen since the deadliest years of the insurgency, underscoring the high stakes for Iraqi leaders desperate to portray stability after nearly six years of conflict.

Although violence is sharply down -- and with pre-election attacks relatively limited -- authorities were unwilling to take any risks. They ordered cars off city streets, sealed borders and closed airports.

The top-to-bottom precautions show that the consequences run deeper than just the outcome of Saturday's ballots for 440 seats on influential provincial councils across Iraq.

Despite stepped up security efforts, three Iraqis were killed on Friday while working to defuse a bomb in Diwaniyah, south of Baghdad, according to Press TV.

Three Iraqi bomb squad members have been killed and 20 others wounded while working to disarm an explosive device at a police station.

Three Iraqi candidates have also been killed ahead of the election, reports Al Jazeera.

The three, all from the Sunni Arab minority, were killed by assailants in separate incidents on Thursday.

There are high hopes for these elections, but all expectations should be tampered, writes Joost Hiltermann, an Iraq analyst for the International Crisis Group, in Foreign Policy.

Iraq has been such a mess and the return to near-normalcy such a welcome event, that it is easy to endow the upcoming vote with an unreasonable significance. Yes, the elections are evidence that things are on the mend. But we should temper our expectations -- about the vote's outcome and what it means for Iraq now and when the U.S. pulls out. Even with a successful election, the country will remain fraught with crippling problems.

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Logistics aside, a series of factors has spawned a certain cynicism about what local governments will and can do effectively. Lawlessness, corruption, isolation from Baghdad, inexperience, and confusion about overlapping authorities has disillusioned the newly voting public. When you ask Iraqis what the local councils have done for them, the stock answer is: Nothing. An independent politician in Diwaniya explained, "Despite violence, terrorism, explosions and threats, people voted [in 2005]. But what did they gain? They gained the reality that doors were shut in their faces."

The Guardian reports that the elections have no direct effect on Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki but are a "litmus test" of his government's authority in the different regions. The Guardian also reports that the elections are an attempt by the regions to distribute power around the country.

Today's ballot is being widely seen as a bid by the regions to drain power from Baghdad and distribute it among themselves. Long neglected under Saddam's regime and largely ignored throughout the occupation, the governorates are demanding a say in reconstruction and the sharing of spoils from an oil-fuelled budget surplus.

Are you in Iraq and taking part in this important election? This is your opportunity to have a conversation with Americans about what is really happening in your country. Share with the Huffington Post -- and American public -- your election stories. Past Huffington Post citizen journalists made a huge impact on the US election debate. This is your chance to impact the debate on Iraq.

Tell us if you are planning to vote -- and why or why not. Have you been threatened in the lead up to the election? Do you feel safe enough to vote for your candidate? Are you able to access your polling place? What happens when you get there? Have you ever voted before? If not, why did you choose this election to participate in?

Are you an American living in Iraq? Will you witness the election? We'd love to hear from you too. Tell us what you saw, what you heard and how you think the election went.

Learn about how you can participate here.

Continue reading about election preparations from the AP:

Voting carried off without major attacks or charges of irregularities would give a critical boost for Iraqi authorities as the U.S. military hands over more responsibilities. But serious bloodshed or voting chaos could steal momentum from supporters of a fast-paced withdrawal of U.S. combat troops next year.

The election is also a possible dress rehearsal for bigger showdowns later this year when the U.S.-allied government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki could face challenges for power.

"Our security is very well prepared," said the deputy interior minister, Iden Khalid.

Yet the full-scale clampdown also brought back an aura of some of Iraq's most unstable days, including 2005 elections, which many observers believe set the stage for sectarian violence a year later.

Traffic bans were ordered for Baghdad and other major cities. The closely monitored frontiers with Iran and Syria were among borders that were sealed. A nighttime curfew also was in place, apparently to block extremist groups that plant roadside bombs under cover of darkness.

Double-ring cordons are planned for the thousands of polling sites -- in schools, offices and civic centers -- stretching from the foothills in the far north to the Persian Gulf in the south. In many places, women teachers and other civilians were recruited to help search for possible female suicide bombers.

The U.S. military has assisted Iraqi forces in the security preparations and plan patrols during the elections. But American commanders insist they are on the sidelines and will intervene only if needed.

Polls are scheduled to open at 7 a.m. (0400 GMT, 11 p.m. Friday EST) and close 10 hours later. Results are not expected for several days. But it could take weeks of dealmaking to determine which parties have gained control of key areas such as Baghdad, the Shiite-dominated south and former insurgent strongholds of western Anbar province.

More than 14,000 candidates have joined the races, marking the first time large numbers of Iraqi politicians have openly campaigned since the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003. In past elections, voters picked from parties, and individual candidates mostly stayed out of the public eye for safety.

But the flood of candidates also brings potential confusion. There are more than 2,600 alone in the Baghdad area for 57 seats, turning the ballot paper into a dizzying exercise in picking both a party and candidate.

"We are tasting the fruits of democracy," al-Maliki said at a campaign stop for some political supporters.

But it hasn't been without some pain. Gunmen killed three candidates in attacks Thursday -- slayings typical of recent weeks: gangland-style hits or small bombings but few large blasts with major casualties.

At the Baghdad funeral of one of the slain candidates, Omer Farooq al-Ani, mourners covered his coffin with an Iraqi flag and his campaign poster, which carried the slogan: "With us, your life has value."

The provincial councils have no direct sway in national affairs, but carry significant authority through their ability to negotiate local business deals, allocate funds and control some regional security operations.

In this election, they also may offer a road map for coming political tussles and trends. The Shiite-led government may have the most hanging in the balance.

Al-Maliki's Dawa bloc has been facing off against Iraq's largest Shiite party, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, which has close ties to Iran but has also forged a rapport with Washington.

A strong showing by the Supreme Council would likely feed its ambitions to claim control of the government in national elections this year and to establish a self-governing region in the oil-rich Shiite south.

Al-Maliki and many other Iraqis believe that could lead to greater Iranian influence and stoke sectarian divisions.

There also appears to be a backlash to the Shiite religious parties -- or as many Iraqis say, "the rule of the turban" -- from some secular Iraqis and particularly Sunnis. The religious parties, which control southern Iraq, are seen as corrupt and unable to deliver needed services to rebuild and modernize the region.

"We are fed up with those with turbans or those who are in Western suits but with turbans inside them," said Talal Khalid al-Fahad, a 34-year-old Baghdad resident.

Iraq's foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, said this year's elections make it "very, very critical" for American troops to remain in Iraq in 2009. "We need some continuity," he told The Associated Press at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. "That's our key concern."

Iraq's minority Sunnis widely stayed away from the last provincial elections in 2005 -- protesting the U.S.-led occupation but also fearing being attacked on voting lines by Sunni extremists.

The boycott handed Shiites and Kurds a disproportionate share of power. In the province that includes Mosul, where Sunnis are 60 percent of the population, minority Kurds won 31 of 41 council seats.

Not only are Sunnis likely to pick up substantial numbers of council seats, Iraq's Sunni hierarchy could itself be reordered.

In Anbar province, the Sunni tribes which rose up against al-Qaida and other insurgents -- and led to a turning point of the war -- are now seeking to transform their fame into council seats and significantly increase their role in wider Iraqi affairs. Their gains could come at the expense of the Sunni Iraqi Islamic party in the current government.

The final moments of the election also played out on the modern forum of mobile phone text messages.

Loyalists to al-Maliki's bloc urged voters to "Trust in God" and cast ballots for pro-government candidates. "Change" -- the now-famous buzzword of President Barack Obama -- was borrowed by a group led by Iraq's Interior Minister.

The voting covers 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces and is open to about 15 million eligible voters.

Elections are scheduled for later in the northern Kurdish autonomous region and have been indefinitely postponed in the province around oil-rich Kirkuk, where ethnic groups could not agree on a power-sharing formula.