TOPICS > Politics

Iraq Elections Hint at Progress Despite Attacks

March 8, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Iraqis went to the polls this week to cast votes in the country's parliamentary election. With the results forthcoming, Gwen Ifill talks to a reporter in Baghdad about the larger-than-expected turnout, the security situation and how the next government might take shape.
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GWEN IFILL: For more on this weekend’s election, I spoke earlier today with Jane Arraf, Baghdad correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor.

Hello, Jane.

We’re hearing about a 62 percent turnout in this election. Is that higher than expected, despite the violence?

JANE ARRAF, Baghdad correspondent, The Christian Science Monitor: It is higher than expected.

And one of the really interesting things that happened yesterday is that, here in Baghdad, for instance, amid dozens of explosions, the polls understandably emptied out, and then people come back.

In Ramadi, where I was, and in Najaf, where I flew in with the U.N., it seemed to be the same thing. People who had been faced with violence even the day before said they weren’t going to let that deter them.

Now, I know that sounds sort of like a fairy tale, but it really did seem to be true. It did seem to have spurred people on, in some sense.

GWEN IFILL: Is there any way to know who benefits the most from people showing up like this? Is it the Allawi slate, the al-Maliki slate?

JANE ARRAF: That’s a great question. Certainly, Allawi had a lot at stake here in having his supporters show up. Maliki, being the incumbent, still has quite a lot of support, but Allawi is someone who really needed to get that vote out.

There are also, we have to remember, a lot of smaller candidates. There were 6,000 candidates on the ballots. And although most of them, we will never hear their names again, they obviously also had an interest in getting their votes out as well.

GWEN IFILL: We also hear there was the return, at least rhetorically, of Muqtada al-Sadr, the anti-American cleric who encouraged his follower to vote. What was the effect of that?

JANE ARRAF: You know, even though he has not been seen for a long time, he still has immense loyalty. And probably the Sadrists are among the best at getting that — that vote out. So, certainly any time he says something, that does have an effect.

When I was in Sadr City just a few days before the elections, I did talk to some people who were saying they were not going to bother going out to vote. But once Muqtada al-Sadr actually indicates that he wants you to go out and vote, then that probably really did have an effect, as it did with one of the major Sunni leaders who had been barred under de-Baathification, telling people that they should go out and vote.

It does seem that people listened and heeded that call, to some extent.

GWEN IFILL: Jane, it took 156 days to negotiate a new government in 2005, when the outcome was close as this one is expected to be. Is similar instability feared this time as well?

JANE ARRAF: There is actually quite a lot of concern, Gwen.

In fact, that’s probably the major concern, because, really, what we’re looking at is a very closely fought race, in which it’s not clear who is going to emerge the winner. But what is clear is that whoever it is doesn’t have the power to actually form a government by themselves.

So, that means we’re looking at weeks, if not several months, of jockeying for position and bargaining to actually form a government. And that’s really what a lot of U.S., as well as Iraqi officials are worried about. What happens in between, in between the time that this parliament actually phases out and the new one is set to come in?

There are some safeguards that have been put in place. But, certainly, it’s a worry as to who actually holds the reins of power and what happens if there’s an emergency.

GWEN IFILL: Going back to the violence we talked about earlier, what was the scale of these election day attacks? Were they meant to destabilize, or was it just random?

JANE ARRAF: They were really baffling.

And anyone who has spent any amount of time here is used to rockets and mortars and RPGs and car bombs and a whole gamut of things. What they’re not used to are dozens of explosions that turn out, according to U.S. officials, to be, as mentioned, water bottles packed with explosives.

Now, they seem to have been designed to scare people, but not kill them. And all of us here, including every official we speak with, is really having a hard time figuring out who wants to scare people, rather than killing them? Because, really, killing them has been pretty much the point.

So, this was rather inexplicable. Most of these explosions turned out to be largely ineffective homemade bombs. There were two houses that collapsed, one of them killing most of the people here in Baghdad. But those were — for the most part, it was sound bombs and other things that actually didn’t kill people that, for a couple of hours, kept them away from the polls.

GWEN IFILL: The relatively low levels of attacks, were they a sign that Iraqi security forces are having at least some success?

JANE ARRAF: Well, I think it’s indisputable they’re having some success. I think the real question is, are they having enough of a success?

The other thing they did, which doesn’t get talked about a lot, is that they actually managed to diffuse a lot of the potentially more explosive, more lethal bombs that were around, including near the polling stations.

But the Iraqi security forces certainly have come a long way from a few years ago. You can see that in the streets. If you go out here, you will see police. You will see army. And, for the most part, people are beginning to trust them. That doesn’t mean that they’re quite there yet.

There are a lot of places in Iraq where the police don’t get along with the army, where intelligence doesn’t get shared. There are vast areas of this country in the north, for instance, that are major causes for concern, because they could be flash points between the Kurds and Arabs. But, here in Baghdad, for the most part, they are doing a lot better.

GWEN IFILL: Jane Arraf, as always, thank you for your on-the-ground reporting.

JANE ARRAF: Thank you so much. My pleasure.