Cover Story

Unity in adversity

A successful national election hands Iraq-and the Middle East-a historic opportunity

Issue: "Iraq: Unity in adversity," Feb. 12, 2005

Across Iraq the violet-stained index fingers that became a symbol of Jan. 30's successful election have faded. Poll workers told voters that the indelible ink would take at least three days to go away-long enough to certify once-only participation without turning into an annoyance. But in the days preceding the election, voters swapped advice on Baghdad call-in shows on how to remove the ink, fearful the stains could mark them for terrorists. Paint your finger with skin lotion before entering the polling station, then wipe it clean before reentering the street, some advised. Dip your finger in boiling detergent and rub vigorously, others counseled.

Instead, a strangely sanguine YaYa brotherhood-and sisterhood-took hold on Election Day in Iraq. As more and more Iraqis filed into the polling stations, the inky finger bruise became a badge of courage, a mark of achievement, a symbol of defiance of the terrorists, the doomsayers, and the prevailing miasma of uncontrollable chaos. Now most Iraqis hope the adrenal flush over high voter turnout and low violence won't wear out like indigo ink.

Iraqis defied relative optimists. If election turnout "is anything like 30-50 percent then it's successful," proclaimed one editor (National Interest's John O'Sullivan) before polls opened. Over 60 percent of Iraqis nationwide turned out for the country's first multiparty election in over 50 years; upwards of 90 percent in some regions. The overall figure is nearly double the turnout for recent elections in Europe. It is equal to U.S. 2004 election turnout, which was the highest in the United States since 1968. Those percentages do not include another quarter of a million Iraqi exiles, who voted abroad.

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"I moved to mark my finger with ink, I dipped it deep as if I was poking the eyes of all the world's tyrants," wrote Iraqi Mohammed Fadhil. The numbers are a statistical black eye not only for Iraq's tyrannical neighbors but also for Western news outlets (including The New York Times and The Washington Post) who editorialized for postponing the vote.

But Iraqis are less interested in rehearsing the historic score and more concerned about what the results will mean. As ballot counts near completion, they want to know not only who won but who voted. The demographics will say much about how much unity the country can build on.

The Kurds, preliminary estimates show, voted in the largest numbers-well over 90 percent of registered voters in some districts. Shia voters were not far behind, with over 80 percent of registered voters casting ballots. Sunni numbers were well below the mark, although given threats from insurgents and boycott fatwas from some Sunni clerics, most poll-watchers are surprised their numbers registered at all; about 15 percent of Sunnis who were eligible voted.

Despite those variances, experts believe that a wide cross-section of candidates will be allowed to take seats in the 275-member National Assembly. Part of the reason is the process itself: Candidates ran on lists rather than as individuals, and some lists combined Shia, Sunni, Kurd, and other candidates. Further, the high turnout means winning lists are more likely to form what's been called a national unity government, where lawmakers choose leaders by coalition rather than by lead-party fiat.

Successful balloting, suggests Middle East expert Walid Phares, transforms Iraq into "the leading reformist democratic society" in the region. "Even the Arab intellectuals say this," he said the day after polls closed, "by virtue of what [Iraq] just did."

Mr. Phares, a senior fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, predicts that the election victor, likely the Iraqi National Alliance, a list headed by majority Shiites and favored by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, will form an alliance with both Kurd and Sunni leaders to elect first a speaker and then a president and two vice presidents. Leaders in recent weeks have suggested they may choose interim president Ayad Allawi to lead again, despite the popularity of the National Alliance's ideologically driven leaders, like Abdul Aziz al-Hakim (who narrowly escaped a car bombing at the gate of his home four days before elections). Vice presidential picks are likely to be Kurdish and Sunni. Jalal Talabani is the favored Kurd candidate, and interim prime minister Ghazi al Yawer could very well be the Sunni pick.

Can so much unity come out of two years' bloody diversity?

"The reality is that if Iraqis wanted to engage in civil strife, they would have already done so," said Mr. Phares. "Not that those tensions don't exist. We've seen a battle among various groups over whether or not to hold these elections. Some wanted to postpone, but even their position was an attempt to come closer to the process, not further away. That is, with the exception of Zarqawi."

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