On the day of the election, 30 January, the streets of Baghdad were clear of traffic. Families, mainly Shias, drifted down the main road in the Jadriyah district to the polling stations near the al-Hamra Hotel, where I live. The thump-thump of mortars in the distance did not affect the festive mood. The odd bicycle rattled past. For the first time in more than a year there was no danger of suicide car bombs. A blue and white police vehicle hooted at a small child kicking a ball. Children often play in the alleyway behind the hotel – their favourite game, played with plastic Kalashnikovs, is Americans v. the resistance – but it had been a long time since I had seen any of them on the main road.

By midday the Western television correspondents who had poured into Baghdad the previous week were exclaiming enthusiastically at the massive turnout of voters in Shia and Kurdish districts. This shouldn’t have come as a surprise. It was, after all, the Shia leaders who had demanded an election after the fall of Saddam Hussein in April 2003. They wanted the polls to show that Shias, who make up 60 per cent of the Iraqi population, have the right to hold political power.

Until just over a year ago the US had vetoed an election, in the belief that, with the help of a few tame Iraqi exiles, it could rule Iraq itself. Excuses were made. US officials said there first had to be a census to identify potential voters. The attraction of the census for Washington was the length of time it would take. Instead of an election, the US would nominate caucuses of local elites to draw up a constitution. Only when guerrilla attacks escalated in Sunni districts did the US realise that it could not afford to alienate the Shia as well as the Sunni. Suddenly the holding of an election became the centrepiece of American policy.

Iraqis are desperate for peace. It had been a long time since I last walked down Jadriyah Street. It’s a dangerous road: gunmen or kidnappers can watch potential victims coming and going from the hotel. To be as inconspicuous as possible I travel in an elderly car, caked with dust, more likely to belong to an Iraqi than a Westerner. We peer nervously out of the rear window to see if we’re being followed. If anything looks suspicious the driver will turn off the main road into smaller streets, until he is sure nobody is behind us.

Jadriyah, a middle-class neighbourhood built on a large loop in the Tigris, is one of the safer parts of Baghdad. When it is warm enough to sit outside in the evenings, families eat kebabs and drink tea in makeshift restaurants beside the main road. But things are changing. Last month a suicide bomber blew himself up beside a large half-finished office building that served as a guard post for the Australian soldiers who protect their embassy. A nearby building was turned into a grey concrete sandwich by the blast, as one floor collapsed on top of another. ‘He must have been one of the stupidest bombers in the world,’ said Nabil, a businessman who was sitting on a chair in the street watching voters go by. ‘He killed two people, both Iraqis. One of them was a mentally ill man everybody liked who’d never recovered from his son being killed in the Iran-Iraq war.’

A few hundred yards further down the road was a battered white kiosk where a middle-aged man was selling cigarettes. On the inside wall of the kiosk was a picture of him and his 14-year-old son. The boy was called Ali Abbas. He used to sell me cigarettes until I gave up smoking in December 2003. When another suicide bomber blew himself up in Jadriyah Street – his target was never clear – I had forgotten that the explosion was close to Ali’s kiosk; I didn’t know that it had killed him.

The election is not likely to bring peace nearer. The resistance is still escalating in Sunni areas. The insurgents are getting more expert. The night before the election they fired a rocket into the US embassy in the heart of the heavily fortified Green Zone, killing two Americans. On the afternoon of the poll they shot down an RAF Hercules with a missile, killing ten men, the worst British loss in a single incident since the war began. US policy is gradually to replace American troops with a newly trained Iraqi police force and army. But Iraqis are terrified of being identified as working for the occupation. Shortly before the election, a man drove a Toyota car into Zaidoun Street, which contains several government buildings, including the office of the Iraqi National Accord, the party of Iyad Allawi, the interim prime minister. Challenged by police commandos in camouflage uniforms and black ski masks, the man detonated a bomb. ‘Going by the remains of his face which we found later, we think he was a non-Iraqi Arab, maybe a Sudanese or from the Gulf,’ the detective in charge of the case told me.

It was a routine suicide bombing. More telling about the state of security in Iraq was the attitude of the injured police commandos after they arrived in the Yarmouk hospital. Even as they lay in bed they clutched their submachine-guns and refused to remove their ski masks in case they might be recognised and hunted down by insurgents. ‘You mustn’t take any photographs,’ a masked commando shouted at two Iraqi photographers as he blocked the doorway into the ward where the policemen were being treated.

The election may have come too late. If it had happened in the months after the invasion, Iraqis would not have felt they were being occupied by an imperial power. If the army and police had not been dissolved in May 2003, the guerrillas would not have been able to draw into their ranks so many highly trained soldiers. Iraqis were glad to escape a brutal regime; but a year later they were looking at pictures of prisoners being tortured by US soldiers in Abu Ghraib. A new political class – drawn from the unpopular exiled parties, long absent from Iraq and dependent on foreign intelligence services – has got used to power and is not going to give it up easily.

The resistance is too well entrenched in the Sunni Arab provinces of Iraq for it to be eradicated. Tony Blair, echoing Iyad Allawi, speaks of 14 out of 18 provinces being completely safe, but everybody in Iraq knows this is untrue. The Iraqi, American and British governments can maintain this myth about peaceful parts of Iraq only because they are too dangerous for journalists to visit and prove the opposite. The interim president, Ghazi al-Yawer, was closer to the mark when he said after the election that American troops cannot leave now ‘because of the chaos and power vacuum’. The only truly safe areas are the three Kurdish provinces in the north. The insurgents have strong support in the seven provinces where there is a majority or large minority of Sunnis. An opinion poll last month showed that 53 per cent of the five million Sunnis supported armed resistance.

The election was supposed to be the moment when the Shia majority in Iraq finally won power after decades of being excluded by the Sunni establishment. The man most responsible for the election taking place at all was not George Bush but Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the Shia cleric who seldom leaves his house in the shrine city of Najaf. After the invasion he persistently demanded an election. He opposed armed action against the occupation but has also refused to meet American officials. He believes that the Shias made a mistake in 1920 when they rebelled against the British, making it easy for the Sunnis to gain power.

Millions of Shias went to the polls and their largest grouping, the United Iraqi Alliance, formed under the auspices of Sistani, is likely to do well. But this does not guarantee that they will take over the state. The Western media coverage of the election was simple-minded, treating it as a horse-race, with Iraq as the prize. Mahmoud Othman, a veteran Kurdish politician elected to the National Assembly, said that a new Iraqi government needed to do three things: open negotiations with the resistance, arrange a timetable for American withdrawal, and go some way towards ending the worsening economic crisis.

None of these is likely to happen soon because, regardless of the result of the election, real power in Iraq is still largely held by the US. The interim government cannot even hold a press conference unless it is protected by American machine-gunners inside the Green Zone. In the weeks before the election, the US embassy in Baghdad, which still operates from Saddam’s old Republican Palace, the symbolic centre of power in Iraq, made clear to the Iraqi political leaders that there were two things the US could not accept: a Muslim cleric at the head of the new government, and any official demands for a timetable for American withdrawal. This veto, spoken or unspoken, remains in place. There is no doubt what Iraqi Arabs want. In a recent opinion poll, 82 per cent of Sunnis said they want the US to leave as soon as an elected government is in place. More surprisingly, 69 per cent of Shias gave the same answer. Only the Kurds want the US to stay. ‘You can’t talk to the Americans,’ Abu Ali Anwar said. ‘I have no food, electricity or fuel. It was bad under Saddam but now it is ten times worse.’

A significant pointer to the real balance of power in Iraq is the speed with which the Sunni and Shia political leaders covertly bowed to US demands. The United Iraqi Alliance told voters that electing its candidates was the quickest way to end the occupation. The second item in its manifesto was a demand for a timetable for multinational withdrawal. Just before the election, the manifesto was withdrawn. When it re-emerged, the item about US withdrawal had disappeared. The Arabic version of Allawi’s party website also called for ‘a conditions-based withdrawal’; when the US complained, Allawi quickly gave a series of interviews saying that talk of a pull-out was premature.

The Shia and Sunni political parties have a dilemma. Whatever they say in public about ending the occupation, they know they can scarcely survive without it. The most important political development in Iraq since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein has been the growth in hostility towards the US. The Brussels-based International Crisis Group said in a well-informed report in December that ‘national elections scheduled for January will change little unless they produce institutions that can address basic needs and prove their independence by distancing themselves from the US and reaching out to all political components.’ This coincides with what Othman recommends but, whatever the make-up of the National Assembly, it is unlikely to produce a government which can do any of these things effectively.

The television and newspaper coverage of Iraq in the run-up to the poll gave the impression that Iraqis were spending their time talking about the outcome of the election. In fact, conversations are more likely to be about the economic crisis and the shortages. In January, for the first time, large areas of Baghdad had no drinking water. The electricity supply is poor. It is cold this winter: people are turning to kerosene heaters. But the fuel is in short supply, mostly coming from men who drive tanks of it around the streets on carts drawn by mangy horses. Much of Baghdad now depends on small generators, costing about £100 each, to produce enough electricity for lights and television. This increases the demand for petrol further.

The interim government, set up last June, has a reputation for extreme corruption. ‘You can’t get the smallest contract from them without bribery at every level,’ an Iraqi businessman told me. In Najaf during the election, it was impossible to buy petrol legally since the supply was diverted into the black market controlled by the local police. For all the billions of dollars supposedly spent on reconstruction, the only cranes to be seen on the skyline of Baghdad are a few rusty ones rising around two giant mosques that Saddam Hussein had been building. Some nine billion dollars spent under the US-controlled CPA in 2003-04 cannot be accounted for. Officials in the oil ministry are blamed for complex scams that divert petrol, intended to be sold to the Iraqi consumer at artificially low prices, to neighbouring countries where it is sold at market price. The officials pocket the difference. Even the mobile phone system is packing up. This was one of the few welcome innovations post-Saddam but now the phones very often don’t work.

The government has shown itself incapable of dealing with the economy, or lack of it. Ministers are incompetent. Many lived abroad for decades and their families are still there. The amount of time they spend out of the country is a standing joke in Baghdad. One paper claimed to have established that on one day the entire cabinet was travelling on urgent business outside Iraq. Once safely in New York, London, Paris or Dubai, ministers are happy to give optimistic interviews about the state of Iraq: the insurgents, they say, are on the run. The Kurdish ministers are the exception: they have decades of political and administrative experience. After years of fighting Saddam Hussein, they are also less troubled by the constant attempts to assassinate them. Hoshyar Zebari, the foreign minister and a Kurdish leader long on the run from Saddam, seemed amused rather than worried that a torpedo, presumably looted from a naval arsenal, had been found in a truck near his house packed around with 880 kilos of artillery shells and explosives. The truck driver had lost his nerve at the last moment and run off.

The Kurds, not the Shias, are so far the only Iraqi community to have unquestionably benefited from the US invasion. Saddam Hussein is in prison. They have made big gains on the ground, recovering land in Mosul and Kirkuk province from which they had been driven over the past half century. Most important, they hold the city of Kirkuk and the nearby oilfields. The US needs the Kurds, its only reliable allies in Iraq; though it would have been happy to let the Turkish army march into Iraqi Kurdistan during the war, had Turkey allowed US divisions to be based in Turkey.

The differences between the Kurds and both the Sunni and Shia Arabs are likely to grow more acute. In the long term a civil war between Kurds and Arabs is much more likely than the much discussed war between Shia and Sunni. The Kurds and Arabs have fought each other often in the last fifty years. The Shia and Sunni have not. Relations between the two communities are complex. There is a lot of intermarriage. In Baghdad they frequently live in mixed areas.

The Kurds, always the heart of the Iraqi opposition, fought the central government in Baghdad for more than fifty years. They are not going to give up Kirkuk. They will insist on a federal Iraq in which they enjoy a degree of autonomy close to independence: they dare not declare formal independence for fear of a Turkish invasion. One reason for increasing sectarianism is that Kurdish and Shia militia make up the most effective units of the new Iraqi army. When three-quarters of the 4000 Iraqi police deserted in Mosul last November as the resistance took over the city the US had to rush in several thousand peshmerga.

A new Iraqi government may be more legitimate than the old one, since it will have been elected, but it will still be weak. It is to last only 11 months, after which there will be fresh elections for a National Assembly once a constitution has been passed by a referendum. The selection of a government this time round will be tortuous, requiring compromise between different communities, and may well produce paralysis. As in Lebanon it may institutionalise sectarian divisions. The deputies will first choose a president and vice-president by a two-thirds majority. These must then agree unanimously on a choice of prime minister, who will in turn choose a government, which must then be confirmed by the assembly. This system was devised largely at the insistence of the Kurds, who want to have a veto on any decision that might reduce their quasi-independence.

Allawi could end up getting the job of prime minister again for the same reason he was selected last June. He is the man with the least enemies. He is a secular Shia from a well-established merchant family, and a former Baathist who for years was in the pay of the CIA and MI6. These credentials might not sound appetising, but he should attract votes from many Shias who don’t want an intrusively Islamic state. Former Baathists who were sacked after the invasion may also feel more secure under a past member of the party. The danger is that Iraqis did not brave mortars and suicide bombers on election day in order to get a government which is a photocopy of the previous one. If that is what results, they will come to see the election, as one non-voter put it, as ‘a movie directed by the Americans to impress the international community’.

But the likelihood is that the United Iraqi Alliance, the Shia coalition cobbled together by Sistani, will have swept the board, winning close to half the seats in the 275-member National Assembly. It may then demand the position of prime minister for one of its leaders such as Ibrahim Jaafari, a leader of the Islamist Da’wa Party or Adel Abdul Mahdi, the finance minister and a member of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. If these two knock each other out another candidate is Hussein al-Shahristani, a nuclear physicist tortured by Saddam Hussein for whom he refused to build a nuclear bomb. Any of this would be a blow to Bush and Blair who insisted on regal treatment for Allawi as if he was something more than an interim prime minister appointed by themselves.

Journalists traditionally approve of elections as a cure for all ills. The arrival of each voter at a polling station in a Sunni area was deemed another body blow to the insurgency. CNN interviewed a smiling policeman in the ruins of Fallujah, who said he had been pleasantly surprised by the number of people voting. It was the fourth time in a little over a year that a supposed turning point for the US and its local allies had been reached. The first was in December 2003, when Saddam Hussein was captured. Six months later sovereignty was formally handed back to a US-nominated Iraqi government amid media fanfares. Last November, after savage fighting, the US recaptured Fallujah and American generals claimed to have broken the back of the resistance. Expectations of a real change after the elections may turn out to be equally exaggerated. The Americans will stay; the war will go on.

3 February

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