The last time Iraqis went to the polls for national parliamentary elections, in 2005, the insurgency against the U.S. invasion of 2003 was still gaining strength, Sunni Arabs who had benefited under former President Saddam Hussein's dictatorship boycotted the vote in protest, and the emergence of a Shiite-dominated coalition led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki -- then newly elected -- brought the deeply divided country to the brink of civil war.
Before Iraq's second national election, which was held over the weekend, many observers feared a repeat of the turmoil in 2005 amid insurgent threats to again use violence to disrupt the process. But at a time when Iraq has largely faded from U.S. headlines -- a big exception being Sunday night's Best Picture win for the Iraq war film "The Hurt Locker" -- the country appears to be moving away from the sectarian violence of five years ago and toward the establishment of a true democracy.
To be sure, insurgents tried to frighten Iraqis away from voting with a barrage of rocket and mortar fire that began even before the polls opened on Sunday. The violence killed some 30 people and wounded three times as many. The worst incident occurred when insurgents detonated a large cache of explosives hidden in an apartment near a polling station in Baghdad, causing the structure to collapse with 26 people inside.
But this time, Iraq's citizens, including large numbers of Sunni Arabs, refused to be intimidated. By the end of the day, the violence had faded and overall turnout was surprisingly high -- 55 percent to 60 percent, according to early estimates. That's better than most U.S. presidential elections.
The Iraqis' insistence on their right to vote -- and the relative ineffectiveness of insurgent violence in deterring them -- is a testament both to the performance of Iraqi security forces in their first major test since American troops withdrew from the nation's urban areas and to the maturation of an Iraqi democracy in which people increasingly feel they have a stake in the outcome of elections. Early reports indicate that, although flawed in places, the process was generally fair, and U.N. observers said they saw few signs of voting irregularities like those that cast last year's elections in Afghanistan into doubt.
What may be more impressive than the turnout is the competitiveness of the elections themselves. In a country that not so long ago was accustomed to the sham elections that kept Saddam Hussein and his Baath Party in office, this one has turned into a nail-biter between Prime Minister al-Maliki and former interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. In contrast to previous elections, which were largely a contest between sectarian candidates, these two contenders are scrambling Iraq's electoral coalitions. Mr. al-Maliki, whose major backing has come from the country's Shiite religious parties, has attempted to run on his credentials as a nonsectarian leader, while Mr. Allawi, who is also Shiite, managed to win the support of an impressive number of secular Sunni politicians.
Most accounts suggest that it's unlikely that one electoral slate or another will win a majority. Than means extensive negotiations will almost certainly be necessary to form a governing coalition. When that happened five years ago, it took nearly half a year, during which time violence and disorder spread throughout the country, and the U.S. military was forced to fight an extensive campaign in Fallujah and other cities to prevent Iraq from collapsing into chaos and civil war.
No one is predicting that it won't again take months of negotiations to cobble together a parliamentary majority in the aftermath of Sunday's elections. But the prospects of a political resolution leading to a stable power-sharing arrangement among Iraq's contending ethnic and religious factions seem far brighter today than they did in 2005. Having invested so much in the recent elections, Iraqis from all points along the political spectrum might not be willing to let their country be overcome by violence and anarchy so easily this time.
Congratulations to the second democracy in the Middle East! Thank you America for promoting democracy and freedom!
The fact that Iraq is having an election and the sectarian violence is only resulting in dozens of deaths each week instead the larger number we were seeing only a year or two ago is nothing to crow about. In my opinion, the sad reality is that Iraq will continue to have spurts of violence and bloodshed until it explodes into a very serious civil war once we are completely pulled out.