Iraq continues to convulse from its transition from despotic dictatorship to democracy. Tomorrow marks Iraq's second election since the US lead invasion in 2003. The incumbent candidate Nouri Al Maliki has been charged with everything from corruption to dictatorship, yet many claim Iraq is more unified today than anytime since the fall of Saddam Hussein.
A significant effort has been made to support Iraqis living abroad in exercising their right to vote. The Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) organized out of country voting in 16 countries around the world. According to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR), there are an estimated 2.2 million displaced Iraqi refugees. There are nine polling locations throughout the U.S. The UN News Center said the United Nations (UN) has been working with the IHEC to supply polling stations, workers, lawyers and election officials. It is not clear exactly how many Iraqis in the U.S will be voting but the U.S. increased its resettlement quota of Iraqi refugees to 17,000 at the end of 2009. "No one I know in Boston is traveling to DC to vote," said Razzaq Al Saiedi, 41, an associate fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "It's too far and it's expensive to get to DC but I did talk to friends in New York who are going to vote in DC," Al Saiedi said.
While there is much posturing and jostling for power in the young democracy, Maliki continues to show signs of leadership. "What we want is a strong government and leader," Al Saiedi said. Al Saiedi is writing a paper on the elections in Iraq and pointed out that Maliki has been able to form a central government over the past few years. "You can tell there is rule of law. There isn't chaos like there was before, there are traffic attendants and policeman on the streets," Al Saiedi said.
Polls show Maliki several points ahead of his major opponent Ayad Allawi of the Iraqiya coalition party. Allawi was the prime minister of Iraq for the interim government between 2004-2005. "It's not fair to compare them [Maliki and Allawi] because when Allawi was in power the US forces were in charge of security in Iraq," Al Saiedi said. In contrast, when Maliki was elected in 2006, he was in charge of establishing security. Maliki's major political platform is unification and security. Yet many are skeptical of Maliki due to suspected corruption. According to a recent International Rescue Committee report, since the beginning of the war the US has spent $650 billion on military and $29 billion for diplomacy and aid. Yet Iraq continues to suffer from basic infrastructure problems such as water, electricity and inadequate educational facilitates. Alternatively, what Maliki has done is midwife the country from massive chaos in 2006 and 2007 into relative calm today.
The issues surrounding sectarian violence cannot be ignored. Maliki has tried to remake himself as a unifier since his first election by withdrawing from the Shiite Islamic Al Dawa Party and forming the State of Law Coalition group, whose members are both Sunni and Shi'a. Since 2006 he's taken steps to show that he is the prime minister for all Iraqis. Al Saiedi said this was evident by Maliki ordering Iraqi security forces into Basra province at the end of 2008 and removing the Shi'a militia there. Since then Maliki has garnered greater trust from everyday Iraqis. "Maliki has pushed for Sunni and Shi'a to marry," said Jallal Ibrahim, 50, an Iraqi man living in New York City. He said this is a symbol of Maliki's goal to bring the sects together.
Al Saiedi said Saddam was a sectarian who blocked Shi'as from positions of power but on the domestic level Shi'a and Sunni's married and people lived together relatively peacefully. "Now there are political parties divided along ethnic and sectarian lines," Al Saiedi said. He went on to say, "a new era has happened in Iraq it might not be the same again."
Displaced Iraqis continue to be skeptical about the security situation in Iraq. "Some attention needs to be taken off outside states and the Iraqi government needs to take responsibility for providing social services to their co-patriots. Property compensation would send a big signal to IDP's [internally displaced persons] and EDP's [externally displaced persons]," said Eduardo Vargas, project manager for the Iraqi voices amplification project at Intersections International, a New York based multi-faith and multi-cultural organization. To date, the Iraqi government has provided very little compensation for those who lost their homes during the wave of violence in 2006 and 2007. Many of the 4.7 million displaced Iraqis lost everything during this period. "Sunni and Shi'a can't go back to their neighborhoods but the government needs to compensate them for what they lost," Vargas said. Vargas said most of the coalition parties are pushing for a nationalist government versus a sectarian government. "The fact that people are not voting along religious lines brings Sunni and Shi'a together. Hopefully this will close the divide," Vargas said.
If Maliki wins a second term he will need to continue to close the rift between the major groups in Iraq. Since the beginning of the election process dozens of polling stations have been bombed, a signal that Iraq is not yet secure. Iraqi civilians, within the country and refugees outside, continue to be critical of security concerns.