Shi’ites will be in power in the Arab world for the first time in 14 centuries. So Iraqi elections are indeed historic. But it’s not for US President George W. Bush to proclaim Sunday’s elections “a success,” even before the results are known: it’s for the Iraqi people, those who did and also those who did not vote. The undisputable fact is that apart from the Kurds – who since the first Gulf War in 1991 have lived under American protection – most Iraqis, Sunni or Shi’ite, voter or non-voter, in public or in private, blame the United States for the current chaos and their “liberation” from electricity, water, jobs and security. History may still reveal the case that Sunday’s elections under occupation, with rules established by the occupier, suit everyone except the long-suffering 27 million Iraqis.

Up to 8 million Iraqis, about 60% of eligible voters, are believed to have voted nationwide, although this could not be verified. Voters in Shi’ite and Kurdish areas turned out in large numbers. The turnout in Sunni-dominated areas such as Fallujah and Mosul, where the insurgency is strongest, and where Sunni leaders had called for a boycott, was substantially lower.

The contenders

The White House, the Pentagon and the neo-conservatives were forced – by Shi’ite leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s brilliant brinkmanship – to accept these elections, in which a Shi’ite victory is assured. For many Iraqis, Sunni and Shi’ite, Washington’s endgame is not withdrawal, but finding the right proxy government: only the naive may believe that an imperial power would voluntarily abandon the dream scenario of a cluster of military bases planted over virtually unlimited reserves of oil.

Washington doesn’t even try to disguise it, and in Baghdad, US-appointed interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi is widely referred to as either “the man from the Americans” or “Saddam without a moustache.” In these elections, where security was extremely tight – many candidates dared not appear in public for fear of being shot – Allawi benefited from three exclusive assets: name recognition; protection by 1,000 heavily armed guards; and US-sponsored saturation television exposure (although most Iraqis have no electricity at the moment). His campaign slogan was “A strong leader for a strong country.” Allawi is a secular Shi’ite, but as a former Ba’athist, he also appeals to moderate Sunnis.

Asia Times Online sources in Baghdad suggest that the newly elected National Assembly and new government will be very similar to Allawi’s: a mix of religious and secular parties, all of them led by former exiles. A “Sunni parliamentary quota” is almost inevitable, for two reasons: Sunni voter turnout was low; and Sunnis must be represented in the drafting of the new constitution. It’s important to remember that the assembly itself will not write the new constitution; instead, it will supervise the drafting committee. So it’s imperative that Sunnis are part of the committee, otherwise the constitution may be shot down in the four Iraqi provinces with a Sunni-majority when it is submitted for a referendum next September.

The United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), the Sistani-blessed Shi’ite list that will capture most of the popular vote, has officially dropped its demand to negotiate the American departure. This essentially means, from many a Sunni point of view, that the Shi’ites will rely on the Americans to protect them from the Sunni resistance, both secular and Islamist – as well as from the hundreds of thousands of disgruntled, unemployed former Ba’athists who may or may not (yet) be part of the resistance.

Ibrahim Jaafari, the official spokesman of the Hezb al-Dawa al-Islamiya party, founded in 1957 (the oldest Iraqi Shi’ite party), the third most popular figure in Iraq after Sistani and Muqtada al-Sadr, the No 2 at the UIA list and a serious contender for becoming the new prime minister, has already spelled it out: “If the US pulls out too fast there would be chaos.” Jaafari, crucially, also enjoys a lot of respect by moderate Sunnis.

Current Finance Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi, a former Maoist and Ba’athist turned free marketer, also a member of the UIA and strong contender for becoming premier, has repeatedly talked about “realistic thinking” in terms of securing Iraq. Mahdi is very close to some members of the White House’s National Security Council.

And the prize goes to …

Shi’ites swamped the polls in part because Sistani told them it was a “religious duty” to vote. It’s unclear how far the next Sistani-blessed government will go to dispel the widely-held Sunni perception of the elections as “a movie” directed by the Americans and packaged to the rest of the world. The Shi’ite leadership at the UIA cannot afford an enduring, widely held Sunni perception of a Washington-Shi’ite alliance. Things may get much worse. Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the No 1 in the UIA list – who has ruled out becoming the new prime minister – was the leader of the Badr Brigades for almost 20 years. The Badr Brigades – trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards – were the armed wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). Now they’re rebranded as the Badr Organization, a political party also represented in the UIA. One can imagine the volcanic possibility of the Badr Brigades being employed by the Shi’ites to fight the Sunni resistance.

Muqtada will immediately pounce at any suggestion of a Shi’ite cozying up to the Americans and denounce a Jaafari, Mahdi, or better yet Allawi II government as an American puppet. Sheikh Hassan al-Zarqani, the Sadrists’ press officer, has already delivered the message in unmistakable terms: “The Iraqi people want a pullout timetable, security, job opportunities and social services. We will obey the new elected government if it serves the best interests of the Iraqi people. If not, we will be its arch enemies.”

If the US stays, the resistance will become even bloodier. In the unlikely possibility of the US leaving soon, this could open the way to civil war and a balkanization of Iraq. If the US leaves following a negotiated timetable, an elected Shi’ite government in Iraq will be more than empowered – a terrifying prospect for its undemocratic Sunni Arab neighbors.

As the Sunni resistance will inevitably become bloodier, balkanization is arguably the preferred Washington strategy – as is widely feared in the Sunni triangle. Sunnis mention the Central Intelligence Agency for promoting suspicious bombings; Shi’ite militias used in the leveling of Fallujah; peshmerga (paramilitaries) used to fight Arabs in Mosul; and the possibility of the Badr Brigades being called back. In a civil war, the Americans would divide Iraq in three parts – the juicy ones attributed to US corporations, the rotten ones controlled by warlords. Just like in a previous “movie,” liberated Afghanistan.

Iraq’s Arab neighbors, for their part (as well as American neo-conservatives) are afraid by the emergence of a so-called “Shi’ite crescent” of Iran-Iraq-Syria-Hezbollah in Lebanon. What these anti-democratic Arab regimes – Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, all of them American allies – fear is not only the specter of Bush-exported democracy, but first and foremost the Shi’ites in power. It’s no secret that the Sunni resistance in Iraq gets a lot of help from inside Saudi Arabia, Egypt and especially Jordan. Washington insists “terrorists” move in total freedom from Syria to Iraq. This is false. Islamists cross the border from Jordan, with no hassle by American patrols, then take the highway to Baghdad.

The governments – not the people – of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan all want the Americans to remain in Iraq. For their part, competing big powers Russia, China and the European Union are not exactly displeased to contemplate, from a distance, Bush and the neo-cons’ clumsy attempts to replicate the British post-World War I empire in the Middle East.

It’s the resistance, stupid

If the Sunni resistance is really 200,000-strong, as Iraq’s chief spook has announced, it is the resistance that will have the last word. In a perverse twist of “reaping what you sow,” American abuses in Iraq have reaped so such anger that nobody wants them to leave – even moderate Sunnis, because everyone fears total chaos. The Americans created the conditions for the emergence of a hardcore resistance. They created the conditions for the emergence of suicide bombers. And they created the conditions for staying: after all, now they need to engage in counterinsurgency. As the Iraqi Islamic Party, the biggest Sunni party puts it, even the resistance does not want the Americans to leave. What moderate Sunnis want to see is a detailed plan on the table, with fixed dates.

Americans – but not the rest of the world – are still unable to understand why the resistance has become so powerful. Every faction has its own reasons. Ba’athists are longing to recapture their lost power. Salafists want Iraq to be part of the new caliphate. Moderate Sunnis want the restoration of Sunni rule – which has always been the rule in Iraq. Iraqi nationalists want to kick the foreigners out – like they did with the Mongols, the Ottomans and the British. That’s why the resistance is a relentless, ever-expandable proposition, but always under a unifying umbrella: to defeat the occupiers.

The Shi’ites may be on the brink of power after 14 centuries. Their premier electoral promise – later reneged – was to negotiate a total American withdrawal. If now their strategy is a “wait and see” – let’s train Iraqi forces to fight the Sunni resistance and then we negotiate the American withdrawal – they may be in for a rude shock and awe.

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