GLOBAL JOURNALIST: Will the election in Iraq bring stability?

Friday, March 12, 2010 | 11:45 a.m. CST; updated 1:55 p.m. CST, Friday, March 12, 2010

Stuart Loory, Lee Hills Chair in Free-Press Studies, Missouri School of Journalism: What does the election last weekend in Iraq mean for the future of that country and for the rest of the world? The results are not yet in, and the votes are still being counted. No matter who wins, Iraq will need a coalition government to govern effectively, and that could take months to put into place. One major party is led by the current prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, who has been in power since 2006. The other is led by Ayad Allawi. He is the former prime minister who was a member of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party. Each of these parties is thought to have won somewhere around 100 seats in the new 325-seat parliament. A Kurdish party may have won about 60 seats. The turnout was over 60 percent despite attempts by insurgents to prevent voting by acts of violence. Thirty-eight people were killed on the election days, and hundreds more were wounded. Some observers say this election was not all that meaningful — it was a sop to the U.S. Was it the triumph that President Barack Obama and Gen. Ray Odierno claimed, or was it less meaningful than they were saying?

Stephen Farrell, correspondent, The New York Times; Baghdad: By the signals we were picking up on the day, they weren’t entirely happy when violence elbowed its way into the story, although I don’t think it became the story. A lot of people did go out to vote, and they did have a defiant attitude. I think it certainly was meaningful to a lot of Iraqis. Whether their votes translate into a stable democracy down the line is another matter entirely.

Loory: From the Iraqi point of view, how meaningful is this election going to be?

Ahmed Rushdi Abdullah, freelance journalist; Baghdad: There will be a change. What happens is we have a majority of Shia and Kurds in the next government.

Loory: Would it make much difference to the U.S. government if the Iraqi government changed hands?

Blake Hounshell, managing editor, Foreign Policy; Washington, DC: Allawi has a long relationship with the U.S., so there are some in the U.S. government who would welcome him coming back. There is a lot of concern among Iraq hands in the U.S. government that Maliki is too strong and that he is engaging in some anti-democratic behavior, but Allawi doesn’t have any better credentials on that front. The real question that U.S. policymakers are concerned about is will the U.S. be able to go ahead with this plan to draw down combat troops in August.

Loory: So is stability more important than democracy in the coming years?

Hounshell: Nobody is going to come out and say that explicitly, but that is sort of underlying everything the Obama administration is doing. I think they let go of some of the illusions the Bush administration had about Iraq, and they’re just focused on leaving behind something stable. Then they can call it a victory, bring the troops home and focus on Afghanistan and reducing the deficit.

Loory: What will an increased amount of democracy in Iraq mean to the rest of the Middle East?

Tom Peter, correspondent, Global Post; Amman, Jordan: Certainly here in Jordan they are very eager to see a bit more stability among their neighbors. They are right in between Israel and Palestine and Iraq, and lately their biggest concern has become the economy. Up until recently, Jordan had been able to dodge the global recession. Now a lot of people are hoping for a bit more stability and a stronger democracy in Iraq so that it could open up new business opportunities. This would create a greater partnership between Jordan and Iraq, which hasn’t been possible with the level of chaos and war that they’ve had there.

Loory: What about in Syria?

Peter: Certainly stronger democratic institutions in Iraq would be beneficial to all the regional partners that are pursuing greater democratic reforms.

Loory: During the height of the war in Iraq, there was a great deal of emigration to Jordan and Syria. Is that continuing, or is there now anything of a reverse flow?

Farrell: Some people are going back to areas that are safe, other people are still coming out and other people are moving on. Jordan is seen by many as a halfway house. You come out, you apply for refugee status and try to go into a third country. People in Jordan would say, "His phone is off." Nobody ever turns their phone off unless they’re out of the country because everyone is waiting for the call from the United Nations Refugee Agency or the International Organization for Migration. Somebody’s phone being off means that they got what they wanted — they got a job and they got onto a third country and they’re gone. We were picking up evidence that people are further out, probably forever if they can.

Loory: Obviously the U.S. wants to see combat troops removed by the end of August this year and all troops out by the end of 2011. Do we think that they are going to be there longer than President Obama wants?

Hounshell: It is not a simple question of the U.S. making a decision. We have a legal agreement with the Iraqis, so we would have to renegotiate the terms of that agreement. That opens a really dangerous political process in Iraq. There was some news that came out before the election that Ray Odierno, the U.S. commanding general in Iraq, wants to have a little more wiggle room in certain areas of the country on the August combat troops deadline. The White House came back and basically told Odierno to keep his mouth shut. It is not something that the U.S. wants to talk about until there is a real government in Baghdad, but that could take months.

Loory: Maliki has talked about keeping American troops there as well, hasn’t he?

Farrell: At a press conference a couple of days ago, Gen. Ordierno was very careful in his choice of words. They’re going to be redefining the troops that remain as advise-and-assist brigades. A lot will depend on how stable Iraq is. The sense here is the Shia saying, "Thanks very much, we’ve got it under control." The Sunnis, who were blowing up Americans left, right and center three and four years ago, are casting a nervous glance over their shoulder at Iran and saying perhaps you might want to stay a little bit longer to look after us.

Loory: The conventional wisdom says that for any stability throughout the Middle East and the Arab world there has to be something done about forging some kind of peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Would there be any difference as far as relations with Israel are concerned if an Allawi government were to replace an al-Maliki government?

Peter: If we look at Israel’s willingness to negotiate, especially under Netanyahu, they seem to be sticking to their guns on lot of the critical issues that would be important to any Arab government. I can’t imagine that a new prime minister in Iraq would bear much change for relations between Iraq and Israel or the region. When it comes to negotiating with Israel — and it really would have to be a two-way street — I don’t think as far as Israel is concerned that change in Iraqi leadership would make much of a difference in terms of their negotiating.

Loory: Is a change in leadership in Iran more important?

Hounshell: We have to keep a lot of these issues separate. What is going on in Israel with the peace process has its own internal logic and political dynamics. Iran has its own politics, and they have their own nuclear weapons ambitions. The Iranian opposition movement doesn’t seem to have been able to put enough people in the streets to force any real changes. Trying to look at the Middle East in some holistic way ignores the reality of things that are going on today.

Loory: Who is going to wind up being the winner in this election?

Farrell: It isn’t going to be that simple. I think it will be a complex series of negotiations with the religious Shia parties coming in third place. I would guess that Maliki’s party may edge out Allawi’s party to be the biggest party, but that doesn’t mean the man who leads the biggest coalition gets to be prime minister with the others going up against him.

Loory: It does look like the war in Iraq at least as far as the U.S. is concerned is winding down. Whether that means stability in the country remains to be seen.

Producers of Global Journalist are Missouri School of Journalism graduate students Youn-Joo Park, Angela Potrykus, Melissa Ulbricht, Tim Wall and Megan Wiegand. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.

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