Daily reports from the situation in Iraq point to a meaningful escalation of the violence, as Islamist groups try to disrupt the voting process. Just this weekend 46 people died in several bombings aimed squarely at voters in key districts.
The current elections in Iraq are of fundamental importance, in that they signify both the fist true election since the US occupation and troop withdrawal, and the transition from a government led by principals that had western affiliation to one that may better reflect the voter's choice.
The problem, as it has been for the last few years, that Sunni islamists are unwilling to be ruled by a Shi'a administration. The dream the Islamists dream is to have a wide swath of land from Iran to the Mediterranean under Sunni fundamentalist rule, i.e., an Islamic caliphate of sorts from which to overturn the fate of the world. For this reason, the militants have targeted specifically those government installations and institutions that best represent, in their mind, the symbols of a power that has been usurped.
The problem of sectarian violence, one of the most pressing and persistent in Muslim countries, is one that cannot be wished away. What is interesting however, is that in Iraq, the majority of people vote along clear sectarian lines, and yet, there is no expressed wish by the population to return to an exclusive Sunni rule.
There are areas of Iraq however, where voting will not take place, such as Anbar province, where Al Qaeda affiliated groups have almost total control. To add to the uncertainties of the voting process are the large numbers of Iraqi expatriates who are voting from abroad.
The government in Iraq has all but declared martial law until Wednesday, to include a no flight period until the polling is over Wednesday night. A three day period of national holiday has been extended for the elections to allow troops and police better transit in the streets during the voting process. In addition, a ban on vehicles and cell phone use will be put in place during the day of voting.
The atmosphere is tense to say the least. Policemen come to vote in civilian clothing to avoid attracting attention. Polling stations are peppered with police contingents and bomb sniffing dogs.
The slew of bombings in the pre-election period aimed at discouraging voters seems to have not had the desired effect. However, the level of killings has become the highest since before the last elections, held in 2010. More than 2,500 people have already been killed since the beginning of the year.
The question in everyone's mind however is what will happen to Iraq once the voting is tallied and the new government seated?
One of the things that many people believe has increased violence and unrest in Iraq was that the last elections left the time they found. Because there were no real political changes and there was not a true representation of the people's political and religious beliefs, the last elections may have exacerbated those problems instead of ameliorating them.
The greatest obstacle, in fact, could be the continuity of the political makeup of the Iraqi government. As long as Nouri al Maliki remains in power, and many believe he will be the victor again, true change is not going to come. However, the overall makeup of the administration will be more representative of the people, since more parties will be included.
One of the things that might make a difference in terms of reducing violence, is the continued American presence in Iraq, to listen to some. Voices differ on the US military presence, although greatly reduced. Many, on the other hand, think that presence promotes violence as Islamists pound the table that there should be no US encroachment on Iraqi soil, while just as many fear that the absence of the US military ma embolden Islamists to even greater acts of violence.
One of the things that is not immediately visible when news of violence in Iraq reach the rest of the world, is that there is violence on both sides. In addition, the Sunni side has been emboldened by the sense of mission acquired from their incursions in Syria. ISIL, the major Islamist group now on the ground in Syria, is trying to create a state within a state in Iraq, by annexing both parts of Syria and later, Iraq. This scenario leads to unprecedented efforts to divvy up territory and concentrate in certain areas, thereby destabilizing the fragile unity of the country.
Although Iraqis are resigned to violence and the presence of terrorist groups in their country, there is an overwhelming sense that stability and peace, and the democracy much vaunted by the US invaders, are still not within grasp, and might not be for a very long time to come, elections or not.
Some however are very disenchanted with the government, believing that a degree of cronyism has solidified the Council and the political picture, thereby being an impediment to the democratic process.
Since some parts of Iraq are so marred with violence that the locals cannot vote, many question the legitimacy of the results, even before they are tallied. Such disillusionment does little to help create the kind of optimism and forward thinking necessary for democracy to survive.
The mere fact that al-Maliki is considered to be the front runner, sends a message to the Iraqi citizens that a dynasty of sort has already been sanctioned by greater forces. To many, al-Maliki's continued tenor is akin to dictatorship and therefore anathema to a people that has had to endure war and destruction in the name of deposing another tyrant. But to others, Maliki is continuity, and the hope, however tenuous, that his re-election will save the country from falling into greater turmoil, and violence.
Some are just thankful of the democratic process unfolding as it has for almost a decade Others are not so sure. Sectarian beliefs undermine the very concept of unity and collaboration, but if the new administration and government that will rise from these latest election can manage to be inclusive and to allow each sect or ethnic group to voice their opinion and their requests, the democratic process will at least have been seen further along.
Partial Sources: NPR/BBC/The HINDU/DAWN: 4.29.14