[Viewpoint] Iraq stands at the start of a new path

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[Viewpoint] Iraq stands at the start of a new path

Since the 2003 invasion, the Iraq military campaign has cost the United States $700 billion and 4,300 lives. The worldwide consensus is that Washington brought on its own demise because it acted on misinformation. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell has publicly expressed regrets that the case he presented to the United Nations Security Council in February 2003 was used to justify the American invasion, calling it an “everlasting blot” to his name.

President Barack Obama plans to live up to his campaign pledge to end the unwelcome war there by pulling out American forces by next year. He has promised to “continue with the responsible removal of U.S. troops” even as tumultuous signs cloud the insecure and violent society as it wraps up its national election.

The outcome of the March 7 vote for the Iraqi Parliament was expected to determine the timetable for full-scale American withdrawal from Iraq. But the preliminary results, with more than 80 percent of the ballots tallied, portend a turbulent aftermath with no majority winner.

The incumbent prime minister seems to have a slim edge over his secular rival. His followers claim fraud and are demanding a recount.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law Coalition is expected to take up 87 seats in the 325-member Council of Representatives, while former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s secular Iraqi National Movement will likely end up with about the same number. Any new government coalition will have a harrowing tightrope walk ahead of it.

But what concerns the United States is not the fact that neither al-Maliki’s group, with which it has worked for the last five years, nor Allawi’s, which it has discreetly patronized as a backup, has failed to secure a solid majority.

The surprise comes from the populist favor for anti-American dissidents.

The followers of Moktada al-Sadr, a vehement advocate against the American presence, are likely to command more than 40 seats. The 36-year-old anti-American Shiite cleric from a revered religious family mixes nationalism with radicalism to prophesy an ambiguous self-serving democracy. His group will likely form a majority of any Shiite coalition and wield formidable political clout.

Al-Sadr’s surge as the kingmaker in the new coalition government could derail the Obama administration’s plan to pull out American combat troops by late summer and end the entire mission with dignity by the end of next year. Washington is capable of working only with a government led by either al-Maliki or Allawi. The young Shiite wants the Americans out immediately.

The Sunni population that boycotted the last election in 2005 this year went to the polls en masse. Both the government and dissidents alike urged their followers to vote. America was hopeful. It anticipated the first popular election and the birth of a democratic society on Islamic soil free of violence, fraud and ethnic and sectarian divisions.

Iran, with ambitions to oust the Americans and dominate the Middle East, coaxed the Sadrists to forge an alliance with its closest ally, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq.

But Tehran’s meddling backfired, and the party fared poorly in the latest election, except among al-Sadr loyalists.

Al-Sadr’s motive for joining hands with Tehran is unclear; most of his followers want to keep their distance from Iran, as most Iraqis have not trusted their neighbor since the 1980s war.

In the upcoming storm of match-making among different sects and political parties, it is hard to predict the new government’s platform on the United States and Iran.

Skeptics and optimists are equally represented in the post-election axis.

The Iraqis have managed somehow to escape the pitfalls of bloodshed from ethnic and political conflict. The resurrection of the secular Allawi, the poor performance of Iran-backed former vice premier Ahmad Chalabi, and the surprisingly large turnout from the Sunni population are the byproducts of a long and painful metamorphosis from dictatorship to democracy over the last seven years.

The Iraqis have sent a strong message that they can no longer tolerate violence, insecurity and poverty. The one-time outlaw al-Sadr emerged from the desert to find his place on the political map because a hard-line religious militant stance no longer has popular support.

Arranging parliamentary seats among various sects and coalitions will be as hard as cracking the most enigmatic math problem. But Iraq has embarked on a riveting journey to a new path.

Iraq lies at the heart of Arab and Islamic society. It is as oil-rich as Saudi Arabia and has potential power over the world economy. And now the first seed has been sown on fertile land for a flourishing society free of dictatorship and foreign occupation.

*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAngIlbo.

by Kim Young-hie
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