Is the war in Iraq over? Let's face it – most Americans would rather not think about Iraq anymore. They would like the conflict that became the signature issue of the Bush administration to fade from view along with the former president.
Still, the Jan. 31 provincial elections sparked some interest. People who might change the channel when a report from Baghdad flickers on the news allowed a reluctant double-take at television screens. Iraqis went to the polls and, for the most part, they didn't kill (many of) their countrymen in the process. How about that!
How about it? How about the thousands of women who ran for office without getting killed? How about the voters who had no patience for extremists? How about the fact that real issues – services, education, the economy – were the subject of campaigning rather than sectarian affiliation? How about the move by the legislature to ban the use of religious symbols in the campaign?
A peaceful election in Iraq is an unquestionable sign of progress. Elections are the most powerful symbol of democracy, and the sight of citizens voting in a country where a brutal despot ruled is enormously moving. Elections, however, do not equal democracy. To be sure, they are an indispensable element of it. More important than the actual voting is what happens after the votes are counted.
The days ahead will tell us if Iraqis are prepared to accept the results of elections even when they lose. The most difficult part of democracy, the truly astonishing stage is that bitter rivals accept the verdict of voters rather than going to war to kill their adversaries. The second most difficult part is that winners not abuse their victories. The coming days will reveal whether democracy has crossed the crucial threshold in Iraq.
Sure, 140,000 Americans still risk their lives there every day. But fighting has, for the most part, ended. American troops remain in Iraq to see that democracy's roots grow strong enough to survive without American military protection and to keep the territory from becoming a terrorist base. They remain to make sure the losing side doesn't take up arms to win. And to ensure that the winners don't trample on the rights of minorities.
The signs from the election are generally positive, but not yet conclusive. Violence was minimal. Secular candidates apparently made a good showing. The prime minister's party, the moderate Muslim Dawa, performed very well. Its main Shiite rival, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, which has close ties to Tehran, lost ground. Sunnis, who had boycotted previous elections, chose to participate, ensuring a more meaningful representation in government for the minority.
Turnout at 51 percent was disappointing, partly because displaced Iraqis were registered in the regions they fled to escape violence. But low turnout may also reflect an end to the sense of crisis.
The most troubling result came in Anbar province. There, the Sunni fighters who switched sides during the insurgency and helped defeat al Qaeda in Iraq say they've been robbed. Leaders of the so-called Awakening groups are angrily accusing the authorities of fraud. A key American goal in the elections was to help them enter the political process rather than turn their guns on the government once U.S. forces leave.
Ahmed Abu Risha, a top Awakening leader, said, "Don't blame us if we threaten to resort to the use of arms." The election commission says it is investigating serious allegations of fraud. This is a key test. Not only do winners have to accept the result of elections in a democracy; elections must be credible, and outcome-altering fraud must be investigated and somehow corrected.
Iraq is slowly becoming a normal country. The number of victims of violence has declined steadily. "Only" 191 died in January. That's the lowest number since the war started, and it's no higher than that found in other countries plagued by conflict and crime. (Colombia had more than 16,000 murders last year.) As Gen. David Petraeus famously said, progress in Iraq is "fragile and reversible."
If the outcome of this election is ultimately accepted as fair by all sides, Iraq will have passed many of the key tests for becoming a functioning democracy, one that is less fragile, if still reversible. If this happens, we will be able to confidently say that the war in Iraq is essentially over. How about that!
ABOUT THE WRITER
Frida Ghitis writes about global issues for The Miami Herald.