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Iraq’s troubled post-election month

Weeks of tensions followed Iraq’s parliamentary election. Although the media shifted their attention to other issues, the sparks set off by the 7 March poll kept everyone on edge. The hot issue was vote counting. On 24 March, the Election Commission rejected an initial request made by outgoing Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani for a recount. The final result put the Allawi bloc just past al-Maliki’s. Allawi, who had initially complained about vote rigging, has now turned around and accepted the outcome; conversely, Maliki, who initially called the vote transparent, is now voicing objections. Yet everyone, from western media to Algeria’s Al Watan newspaper, has greeted the elections as a great leap forward for a country besieged by terrorism and weighed down by a drawn-out process of democratisation that started with the fall of Saddam Hussein. In an editorial with a not entirely positive title, “The Days After,” the New York Times, noted that the election result might lead to “a lengthy power struggle between the Shiite coalition led by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki and the rival secular slate led by Ayad Allawi.” Although this was “not a surprise,” it is something “still worrying.” For the Times, even if the ballot box did not really deliver something new, it did show Iraqis and Americans that they need a legitimate transition and a new government in Baghdad. For the paper, “Iraq’s leaders must now look beyond their sectarian and ethnic bases and show that they have the skill and the vision to govern all of Iraq.” Likewise, it is in Washington’s interest to help them achieve this goal. For the Wall Street Journal, only a cynical mind could be indifferent to the achievement reached by the Iraqi people in these elections. In an article dated 9 March, it wrote, “Bombs and missiles, al Qaeda threats and war fatigue failed to deter millions of Iraqis of all sects and regions from exercising a right that is rare in the Arab world. Even the U.N.'s man in Baghdad called the vote ‘a triumph’.” All considered, for the paper even the uncertainty that came with the election and its aftermath “is a sign of democracy's advance,” as well as a lesson for Iraq’s neighbours like Iran. However, what does worry the WSJ is Iraq’s possible "Hezbollah-ization". After Iran fine-tuned its skills in Lebanon at exploiting sectarian divisions to make trouble, it now appears ready to do the same in Iraq, by providing arms and money to Shiite extremists. “We Iraqis do not know our future, but bombs for us are nothing,” said the title of an article published by Al-Watan, which borrowed the words of an Iraqi voter to illustrate the courage it took for the Iraqi people to vote. In an interview with Brett H. McGurk, an international relations specialist, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) called Iraq’s election a success. Especially telling is the fact that the poll was entirely organised by Iraqis and monitored by the country’s security forces. Indeed, if in December 2005 the United States helped provide security with 160,000 troops, this time the number had dropped to “only” 95,000. However, for the CFR the hard part comes with the vote count and the struggle for transparency. A number of steps must follow. The newly elected parliament must meet in Baghdad and choose a president. After that, the new president will have to ask the largest parliamentary bloc to name a prime minister, come up with a government programme and go through a vote of confidence . . . . All this is a hard burden to bear and could produce all sorts of scenarios. A story from Agence France Presse, reprinted by Le Figaro, also focused on the still close race between Maliki and Allawi two weeks after the election. It noted that the former’s campaign relied heavily on Shiite support, insisting on his role in providing security to the country at the height of the country’s wave of violence, whilst the latter played up the “nationalist” card, stressing the country’s capacity to overcome communal divisions, a strategy that proved successful with Sunni voters. In “Le retour de l'Irak va modifier le jeu pétrolier” (published on 7 March), Le Monde looked at the impact of Iraq’s elections on the politics of oil. It noted that even before the elections, the Iraqi government had decided to increase oil production in order to revive what some Iraqis saw as the glory days of the past. Because of wars in the eighties and nineties, Iraq, a founding member of OPEC, lost much of its political influence on the international scene.

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