Analysis: Saturday's elections a crucial test for Iraqi democracy

BAGHDAD, Iraq — This Saturday, when Iraqis cast their ballots for 14 provincial councils, will be the first real test of Iraq's American-made democracy. Whether Iraqis reject or accept peaceful transfers of power will be the first credible indication of whether departing U.S. troops will leave behind a democratic Iraq or a failed state.

Iraqis will vote in 14 of the country's 18 provinces, and if the elections produce some peaceful and long-awaited shifts in power, it will be the first time that Iraqis will have reason to believe that change can come through ballots rather than bullets.

Since mutinous army officers murdered King Faisel II in 1958, Iraq has seen only a series of military coups. Modern Iraq's leaders all came to power at the point of a gun, including those who were carried into office in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

Elections since then have been stained by violence that kept people from the polls, a boycott by Sunni Muslim Arabs and allegations of fraud and intimidation. The country's provincial councils are widely considered to be corrupt parties to the violence that engulfed the nation and killed tens of thousands, and most Iraqis have come to believe that Islamists exploited their faith and their religious leaders to dictate whether people should vote and whom they should elect.

The country descended into a bloody sectarian war in 2005, 2006 and part of 2007 that included the militias affiliated with the most powerful political parties.

Now Iraqis are weary. Electricity, water and other basic services are still scant, and so far, democracy has given them governments composed mostly of former exiles who sat out Saddam Hussein's brutality in cities from London to Tehran.

Men who once fought against the government of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki and the American military are now among about 14,500 candidates who are competing for seats in the provincial assemblies. Even some who have no trust in the current government have put away their weapons and are trying their hands at democracy. If their votes don't produce the changes they seek, they say, they'll have no choice but to pick up their weapons again.

However, if Saturday's elections produce changes, if they're credible, if they're peaceful, if they pave the way for a successful national election at the end of the year and a drawdown of U.S. troops, Iraqis finally would have reason to believe in a democracy that so far has brought them nothing but devastation.

That also would open a window of opportunity for U.S. troops to depart leaving behind a government they could argue might be capable of facing Iraq's many challenges. The danger, of course, is that the window could be a mirage, that Iraq's competing factions are merely holding their fire and practicing democracy until the Americans get out of the way.

If both elections are failures, it would be devastating to Iraqis and Americans. The Obama administration, eager to turn its attention to Afghanistan, would have to decide whether to stay in Iraq and try to make a failed system work or to leave behind unfulfilled promises and a failed state.

(Fadel is McClatchy's Baghdad bureau chief.)


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