RAMADI, Iraq: The post-election curfew has been lifted and the threats of violence have been muted after the intervention of envoys from the Iraqi Army, the central government and the U.S. Marines. A cacophonous bustle has returned to the filthy, shattered streets of this provincial capital, once a base of the Sunni insurgency.
And still Faris Taha, one of the election’s victors, according to preliminary results, is too fearful to return to the region he will soon represent.
“I cannot go back,” he said, having retreated from his hometown east of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province, to a hotel in Baghdad’s Green Zone. “I am afraid.”
Iraq’s provincial elections on Jan. 31 passed with strikingly little mayhem, raising hopes that democracy might take hold. But in Anbar, as in other volatile provinces, the results that were supposed to augur peace have instead fueled tensions, raising the specter of violence among those vying for political power.
The transition from insurgency to politics to governance – a key to stabilizing the country after six years of war – has proved to be anything but steady and sure. What Anbar has yet to experience is the foundation of any democracy: a peaceful transfer of power. Seating the new provincial governments, Iraqi and U.S. officials fear, could be even more fraught with danger than the elections themselves.
From Basra in the south to Mosul in the north, at least four candidates have faced assassination attempts since the election, while another disappeared on his way to work near Karbala. The divided results in Anbar, where no bloc won more than 17.6 percent of the vote, have led to conflicting accusations of intimidation, assault and fraud; a raft of complaints to the central election commission could take months to sort out.
Efforts to forge a governing coalition, already under way behind the scenes, are exposing tribal rivalries and personal feuds. Most of the incumbents have decamped from the region they have governed since 2005.
“We were born yesterday when it comes to politics,” said Sheik Ali al-Hatem, who backed the Tribes of Iraq coalition, which is challenging its 4.5 percent showing in the vote.
The outcome in Anbar, the vast Sunni-dominated region west of Baghdad, has enormous significance for Iraq’s political development.
It was once the most dangerous province in Iraq, consumed by a bloody insurgency and terrorism, until tribal leaders joined the Americans and turned on Al Qaeda and other extremists in late 2006. They pacified the region and made plans to consolidate their power at the ballot box.
What stunned Iraqi officials was how quickly after the vote some of the tribal leaders returned to the language of war when the elections’ outcome disappointed them.
Even before the results were announced, the leader of the party now known as the Awakening, Sheik Ahmed Abu Risha, threatened to turn his followers into an “armed wing” to overthrow the provincial government. The head of the Tribes of Iraq bloc, Sheik Hammid al-Hayes, threatened to set the streets of Ramadi ablaze and turn the province into a graveyard.
Their fury stemmed from initial claims by the governing party, the Iraqi Islamic Party, to have swept Anbar’s election, as it did in 2005 when most Sunnis boycotted the vote.
Instead, the Islamic Party stood accused of stuffing ballot boxes and reporting inflated results from some polling stations. Party leaders denied any fraud, though one foreign election observer said the complaints had some legitimacy. The central election commission rejected some ballots before announcing preliminary results in Baghdad last Thursday, party officials said.
“The Islamic Party does not deserve even 1 percent of the vote in Anbar,” said another sheik, Aifan al-Issawi, who ran on the Awakening Party slate in the region’s other major city, Falluja. “They have blood on their hands, and they have plundered the province.”
Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki swiftly sent one of his deputies, Rafie al-Issawi, a Sunni from the province, to defuse the crisis. The commander of the Iraqi Army, Lieutenant General Ali Ghaidan Majid, vowed to put down any violence. The envoys appeared to have secured a truce of sorts, but a final resolution remains out of reach.
In Ramadi, the leader of the Awakening Party, Ahmed, now tempers his remarks. Sitting in his tribal guest house not far from the Euphrates River, surrounded by guards, police officers, soldiers, relatives, friends and other hangers-on, the sheik spoke confidently of forging a governing coalition that would exclude the Islamic Party.