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Iraq election provides upside, downside
Seattle Post
Monday, February 14, 200

WASHINGTON -- The Iraq elections may bear out that old adage: Be careful what you wish for. The United States has invested billions of dollars and nearly 1,500 lives to replace Saddam Hussein's dictatorship with the beginnings of democracy. But Iraq's new government isn't likely to be Washington's best friend.

In election results announced Sunday, clergy-backed Shiites and independence-minded Kurds did the best. But the Shiites' 48 percent of the vote was not enough to control the legislature, and leaders are working on a coalition government that could also reach out to minority Sunnis.

"There's a democratic process in Iraq," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Monday. "It's a democratic process that's going to require Iraqis from different ethnic groups, from different parties, from different political views, from different religious backgrounds to cooperate with each other."

Boucher did not say so, but the United States wants far more than just an acceptable process.

It wants Iraq to have a secular or mainstream Islamic tilt, and to turn away from the influence of its next-door neighbor Iran.

It wants a government friendly to the United States and ready to stand as a democratic example to other Middle East countries. It also wants a willing partner for oil production, one that can help stabilize the world market and safeguard billions in U.S. investment.

And the Bush administration hopes for enough stability to pull most U.S. troops out of the country before the 2006 midterm congressional elections at home.

The ledger of pros and cons for the United States coming out of the election is still being written, and it is hard to quantify some of them such as Iraqis' personal liberty and the right to vote. For the United States, however, the election results are another reminder that nothing has gone quite as planned in Iraq.

"The administration is doing a very good job of selling these elections as a vital step toward success in Iraq and withdrawal of American troops," said Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the private Council on Foreign Relations. "I hope so, but history suggests we shouldn't bet on it."

Without firmer footings for democracy than one election can provide, "odds are that the place would be taken over either by people who weren't democrats or were unfriendly to us, or both," Gelb said.

There was little talk of establishing a democracy in Iraq, and much about ridding the world of Saddam and his supposed nuclear, biological and chemical weaponry when the 2003 U.S.-led invasion made quick work of Saddam's army and his Baathist government.

The United States and its allies, principally Britain, have stood in as de facto mayor and sheriff for the nearly two years since. A resilient and effective insurgency targets U.S. troops and Iraqi policemen, among others, and basic infrastructure such as roads, water and electricity are lacking.

The United States points with pride to the fact that Saddam is gone, as well as a minority-run government that suppressed rival ethnic groups. The Jan. 30 national elections propelled to power the groups that suffered most under Saddam, and pushed Sunni Arabs to the margins for the first time in the country's modern history.

Without a majority sufficient to command full authority, the new government will have to build coalitions much as Western European democracies are accustomed to doing. That's a hopeful sign that the new government won't be dominated by extremists, said James B. Steinberg, a deputy national security adviser for former President Clinton and now director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution.

"For the United States, the best case is that nobody has a majority ... and you have more horsetrading that needs to go on," Steinberg said. "Horsetrading is exactly what needs to happen in Iraq so that everybody has a stake in the outcome," he said.

On the other hand, the emerging government has a firm Islamic religious base and links to Iran's ruling clerics. The interim prime minister seen as an ally of the United States, Ayad Allawi, came in third. It is not clear who the next prime minister will be, but none of the leading candidates is strongly pro-American.

"The worst case is that on every single list (of winning candidates) there are people who are not democrats," said Michael Rubin, a former political adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq who studies domestic politics in Iraq and its neighbors for the American Enterprise Institute.

Secular Shiites will be in a political struggle with Islamist Shiites, and there are worrisome figures in both camps, Rubin said.

When all is said and done, Rubin predicts the Iraq government will be an ally, but not one that is a mirror of the United States or even a particularly close friend.

"We did liberate them and that counts for a lot," Rubin said. "But basically instead of an England we'll have a France. It will be a prickly alliance."

EDITOR'S NOTE: Anne Gearan is a diplomatic correspondent for The Associated Press.