On March 7, 62% of Iraqis turned out to vote in their national elections. They did so despite an increase in violence, sectarian tension, and concern about fraud. The preliminary results show that Iran’s covert effort to manipulate the election has failed, and the country is drifting towards cross-sectarian, secular nationalism.
Iraqi voter turnout slightly passed America’s own turnout during the 2008 presidential election, which was praised for being the highest in 40 years. Sunni turnout was as high as 75 percent, a decisive change from the days when it measured in the single digits. The Sunnis supported a bloc led by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shiite, proving that secularism can hold the country together despite their divisions.
Iran aggressively supported the Iraqi National Alliance, a bloc of religious Shiite parties that included those loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr, the anti-American militia leader whose fight against Coalition and Iraqi forces was supported by the Iranian regime. Leading up to the election, Iran was giving the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq $9 million in aid each month and the Sadrists $8 million. One Iranian opposition group warned that the regime was using the Revolutionary Guards to try to tamper with the vote, and even put together a plan for the Al-Quds Force to kill supporters of Allawi’s bloc, especially those in the security services.
The National Council of Resistance of Iran, which is labeled a terrorist group by the U.S. but was removed from such lists in Europe by court order, claims it obtained a report dated March 3 stating that Iran’s covert forces conducted 400 operations in Iraq in February. It said that over 50 assassinations were carried out in the first week of March, killing 10-12 targets per day.
The Iranians also tried to undermine the State of Law bloc formed by Prime Minister al-Maliki. He has taken a softer line on the “Special Groups” supported by Iran lately and is not as publicly hostile to Iran as Allawi, but he did use force aggressively against the militias and split from the pro-Iranian bloc after coming to power. Political posters printed in Iran were found in Basra criticizing al-Maliki and falsely insinuating that Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani was opposing him. Al-Sistani’s philosophy on religion and government is at odds with that of Iran and he has refused to endorse anyone, limiting his statements to calling on Iraqis to vote.
Preliminary election results indicate that Iran’s efforts have failed. Al-Maliki’s bloc is leading, followed by the al-Iraqiya coalition of Allawi, and the pro-Iranian bloc is in a distant third. Al-Maliki even is winning in Basra, a former Sadrist stronghold, and Najaf and Karbala, which are very religious and should be favorable ground for them. The Long War Journal observes that INA is only ahead in Maysan, Diwaniyah and Dhi Qhar. “So far, only in Maysan has the party received at least 50 percent of the vote, and elsewhere it has broken 40 percent in only one other province, Qadissaya,” Bill Roggio writes.
Allegations of fraud could undermine the legitimacy of the election, but so far such claims have not resulted in huge protest or violence. It’s an unfortunate reality that in many countries, losing parties reflexively claim they were cheated. Iraq’s Electoral Commission says that it does not believe that any fraud that has occurred would change the results. A poll conducted prior to the election showed Al-Maliki coming in first, followed by Allawi and then the pro-Iranian bloc, so the preliminary results do not show any obvious sign of large-scale manipulation.
The INA and Al-Iraqiya are accusing al-Maliki’s State of Law bloc of engaging in voter fraud. Struan Stevenson, the President of the European Union’s Delegations for Relations with Iraq, says he has received a “flood” of reports about fraud and meddling by Iran. He says that the fraud benefited al-Maliki, particularly in Baghdad (where the results show his group narrowly leading). Stevenson says that six members of Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission were fired when they were found to be altering computer records to help al-Maliki’s coalition. It is peculiar that Stevenson would say that Iranian operations to tamper with the results would be made to help al-Maliki, considering the Prime Minister is a competitor to the INA and Iran was actively trying to undermine his State of Law bloc.
Stevenson accused the Badr Organization and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, part of the INA, of kicking out observers in Diyala Province and stuffing the ballot boxes. He also confirmed receiving reports of assassination attempts and threats against people connected to Allawi’s bloc. Al-Iraqiya has shown the press what they claim are thrown out ballots, photos of uncounted votes, and accused al-Maliki supporters of electronically modifying the results . His bloc is also saying that 250,000 members of the military were unable to vote because their names did not show up on the voter rolls. Al-Maliki’s group has now jumped in the mix, accusing some operators of electronic machines used to count votes of tampering to help al-Iraqiya.
These allegations are extremely serious and it is safe to say that fraud occurred. The question is whether it alters the election results, which the Iraqi government says it does not. Although both the INA and Al-Iraqiya are accusing al-Maliki’s group of fraud, their rhetoric will seize if they reach a deal with al-Maliki to form a coalition.
Although Iran’s proxies appear to have been handed a major political defeat, the INA can still position itself to have extensive influence in the government by offering to form a coalition with al-Maliki or, less likely, Iyad Allawi and give them the prime minister position. If the INA is denied such power, Iran may take more aggressive measures to bring down the ruling coalition through political pressure. If the NCRI’s report is accurate, then Iran will try to instigate sectarian violence if the secular forces are empowered. This would cause public outcry that could fracture the coalition government and possibly even create the conditions for Iranian-backed militias and proxy political forces to regain power as security and the control of local governments decrease.
The preliminary results show that Iraq wants both sects to be embraced by their elected rulers and that they are moving against religion-based governance and Iranian influence. The Iranian regime fears the creation of a moderate, secular, democratic Shiite government in Iraq whose very existence and progress will threaten their survival. Iraq is moving in the direction that the West has always hoped, but Iran is not ready to give up yet.