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So, Sunnis: What Did Voting Get You?

Tallies are still unofficial in the Iraqi provincial elections, but from the perspective of Sunni participation in the political process — one of the biggest imbalances in Iraqi politics that the elections were supposed to redress — it’s looking increasingly grim.

First we’ve got the combustible mixture of acrimony, fraud accusations and lack of acceptance of legitimacy in Anbar province, where it appears the former insurgents and tribesmen who formed the Anbar Awakening didn’t get the electoral victory they expected. Now Marc Lynch — who, unlike me, reads Arabic — has information about the elections in Baghdad province (yes, Baghdad is its own province). Going off the newspaper Aswat al-Iraq’s tally, the Sunnis appear to have gone from one seat out of 57 to ten or eleven. One of the reasons for this: Shiite death squads have spent years cleansing Baghdad of Sunnis through intimidation and violence; and the Sunnis who used to live in Baghdad couldn’t vote there. As Marc writes, combine that with the unexpectedly strong showing of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s party in Baghdad province, and it’s not hard to see Sunnis asking themselves: what did political participation get us?

One broader point. There has been a lot of tempered talk about how security gains in Iraq over the past two years are fragile and reversible. That’s appropriate. But rarely is there a discussion of what would contribute to their unraveling. Usually people bring up the prospect of U.S. troop withdrawals — and it’s an important factor to consider, for obvious reasons. Yet not enough emphasis has been placed on what would happen if the political process in Iraq unraveled. Iraq is barely out of failed-statehood. To have the Sunnis — the previously-rejection-minded sectarian demographic — feel like they didn’t get their concerns redressed by the ballot, precisely at the moment when reporting suggested that Iraqis viewed the elections as an opportunity to overcome sectarian bloodshed, risks the entire shaky enterprise. It wasn’t that long ago that there was a civil war, after all.

Everyone in the press, myself certainly included, has been looking to Afghanistan-Pakistan as the Big Foreign Policy challenge for the Obama administration. That’s because of three factors: first, the reduction in violence in Iraq; second, the alarming deterioration of Af-Pak; and third, because the Status of Forces Agreement ended the U.S. political debate about the war, and in Washington, there’s a tendency to view foreign crises as tamped down when they cease aligning with domestic political disputes. But it’s clear that the Iraqi political picture — which is the whole ballgame — isn’t a settled issue. Chris Hill had better live up to his reputation when he arrives in Baghdad.

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