Provincial elections must be held as soon as possible if violence is to be kept at bay in Anbar, once Iraq's bloodiest province but now hailed as a major security success story, a top U.S. military official said.
Major-General John Kelly, commander of U.S. forces in the western province, said local polls, due to be held by October 1, could bolster peace but a delay could trigger a return to the violence which almost tore it apart.
"There is some potential for violence if citizens' expectations for new elections are not realized," Kelly told Reuters in an e-mail interview.
Most Sunni Arabs boycotted provincial polls in 2005. Many joined with al Qaeda to form the backbone of an insurgency against U.S. and Iraqi forces in Anbar, scene of some of the fiercest fighting since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
There has since been a remarkable turnaround in security in the province, in large part due to a decision by Sunni tribal leaders to turn against Sunni Islamist al Qaeda because of its indiscriminate killing and strict interpretation of Islam.
However, tribal chiefs and the men they ordered to protect the province against al Qaeda are now straining against a local political system they say does not represent them, and does little for reconstruction and employment in Anbar.
"If elections in Anbar are delayed until 2009, problems could result. Multi-National Forces West supports the holding of transparent and fair elections in the province as soon as the government of Iraq finds it practical," Kelly added.
"The elections are perceived as an opportunity to correct past mistakes associated with the Sunni decision not to participate in the last round of elections," he said.
Leaving aside questions of whether or not regional elections would actually lead to violence in their own right (they are still probably necessary due to legitimate Sunni demands, and a net positive, if a pyrrhic one), something else stood out in its absence: any discussion of regional elections in the Shiite regions. Like many Sunni elements, the Sadrist current boycotted the last round of regional elections in 2005, and are eager to push for another round. The Sadrists' main Shiite rival, ISCI, benefitted greatly from the former's absence in 2005, and thus rightly fear that a new round of elections would substantially dilute their power in Shiite local government.
Here's the question that occurred to me as I read the above excerpted article: is the lack of any mention of the Shiite regions an indication that ISCI (the main ally of both the US and Iran in Iraq) has succeeded in convincing the various external powers that regional elections held in only certain parts of the country (read: Sunni areas) would be acceptable? Keep in mind that the elections themselves are on hold because of ISCI's veto. From the article:
A provincial powers law, which will define the relationship between Iraq's provinces and the central government, is seen as key to paving the way for fresh elections, but its passage has been blocked by Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi [ed: a member of ISCI].
This veto was particularly suspicious because it was ISCI that was pushing for the provincial powers law in the first place. More than a month ago, Reidar Visser took note of some of the chatter in Iraq:
Against this backdrop, it would not be surprising if the dextrous politicians of ISCI, PUK and KDP were once more able to have it their way. “Rolling elections” has already been mentioned – perhaps the perfect euphemism in a context where the dominant US-sponsored Iraqi factions want to have elections in a few selected areas, but not everywhere?
Again, maybe I'm reading too much into this one article. Regardless, though, this maneuvering is something to keep an eye on in the weeks and months ahead. Suffice it to say, trying to deny the Sadrist current a new round of regional elections would be a recipe for disaster. Any fear (legitimate as it is) that Awakenings groups would attempt to seize power violently if denied the ballot box route applies to the Sadrists as well. On top of that, Sistani seems to be sending signals that he's not interested in playing these games.
(h/t to Juan Cole)