Iraq being Iraq, it refused to stand still for the start of the 10-year war anniversary. As Americans began marking the day when President Bush declared war, Iraqi newswires were awash with reports that local elections scheduled for 20 April had been postponed for a maximum 6 months throughout the country for security reasons. Subsequent reports qualified the initial once and said only the Sunni-majority governorates of Anbar and Nineveh would be affected, although there has so far been remarkably little in the way of official, written confirmation. Nonetheless, the epic timing of this decision immediately raises questions that are highly relevant to the outpouring of punditry assessing the war: Was the derailment of elections simply the most symbolic indicator possible that Iraq’s transition to democracy has failed?
Not so fast. Some theories immediately thought the cancellation of the elections in Sunni provinces bordering Syria was a response by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki based on fear that radical Sunnis would come to powers in large numbers – thanks mainly to the general radicalization of the political atmosphere in those areas, which are seen as largely loyal to the Syrian opposition. But there is evidence going back several weeks that local politicians in Anbar had in fact contacted the Iraqi elections commission IHEC exactly with such a postponement in mind. Subsequent to the news that the Iraqi cabinet had decided on a delay, those local politicians went on to express satisfaction about the decision to postpone.
To some extent, of course, this could be simply the result of some politicians fearing they would lose their jobs due to popular dissatisfaction. Turning to Nineveh, though, there is a different picture altogether. The outcry against the postponement has been loud there, and here Usama al-Nujayfi, the parliament speaker and brother of the Nineveh governor, condemned the delay.
Evidently, the Nineveh politicians are far less afraid of losing their jobs than their Anbar counterparts. This may be performance-related, but it could also have to do with different views on the Syrian uprising and the radicalism it has brought to Sunni-dominated parts of western Iraq. Anbar has after all seen some of this before: The sahwa movement was a response to unwanted radicalism on the part of Al-Qaeda. Last year, Maliki succeeded in winning over a sufficient number of local shaykhs to dilute a movement in favour of federalism for Anbar. What we are seeing today in terms of rapprochement over elections postponement could be much-needed tendencies of cooperation between Maliki and Sunni local leaders at a time when regional winds are clearly blowing in a sectarian direction. With many Iraq commentators focused on black and white characterizations of Iraqi politics (or “crescents”) we tend to forget that many Iraqi Sunnis still find themselves sandwiched between extremist Al-Qaeda sympathisers and an Iraqi government they suspect of having too close links to Iran.
Nineveh appears to be a different story, thus cementing the sense of a complete rupture between Maliki and the Nujayfi brothers. Some Maliki critics in Nineveh go all the way and call for federalism as an appropriate response. Still, the stark discrepancy between the Nineveh and Anbar responses should in itself give pause for those in a hurry to declare any kind of Sunni region. If Maliki is smart, he will take this last-minute opportunity to win some much-needed Sunni friends in Anbar. Already the Sadrists that saved his premiership last year (and the budget earlier this month) have declared a cabinet boycott, saying they take orders from Muqtada al-Sadr only. That sort of capriciousness should be a reminder to Maliki about what sort of forces he will be hostage to if he perseveres with a strictly sectarian approach in order to guarantee his political survival.