Marc Lynch

Washout for the Anbar Awakening

Washout for the Anbar Awakening

With Iraqi electoral results finally beginning to be released, with over 60% reporting for many provinces, expect to see a lot of analysis of the results in the coming days on the Middle East Channel and elsewhere.  Reider Visser has already been doing some great work identifying how the Sadrists are catapulting over ISCI candidates thanks to the open list voting system in Baghdad and other provinces.   I was struck this morning by the results in Anbar, where Shaykh Ahmed Abu Risha’s Awakenings List (part of Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani’s Unity of Iraq List), seems headed for a near epic wipe-out.   That is quite a comedown for the heir to Abd al-Sattar Abu Risha’s Anbar Awakening, whose decision to align with the U.S. against al-Qaeda in Iraq’s Islamic State of Iraq in the months before the "Surge" proved so pivotal, and a sign that the leaders of the Awakening may not have found a path to national political power through the ballot box after all.   Is this a cause for concern? 

The election results are not yet final, but at this point the trend looks clear enough.  With 78% reporting, Abu Risha’s Unity of Iraq List has received less than 32,000 votes and is not only being thoroughly crushed by Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiya List (with almost 220,000 votes) but even trails the supposedly decimated Tawaffuq List (over 40,000 votes).   The fiery Shaykh Ali Hatem Sulayman joined Prime Minister Maliki’s State of Law coalition, but the entire list has yet to reach 5000 votes.  Recruiting the outspoken Hamed al-Hayyes to the primarily Shia Iraqi National Alliance has thus far attracted less than 4000 votes.  Unity of Iraq may just squeak out a single seat, but even that looks like it may be close.  

Over the last few years, most American analysts have argued that these elections would offer a path to power through the ballot box for the leaders of the Awakenings.   Their evident washout in Anbar suggest that they won’t, which may trigger a lot of the fears of those analysts (including me) who for years warned about the dangers of not accommodating Sunnis in the political system or integrating the Awakenings and Sons of Iraq into the state.  But the response thus far suggests reasons to be less worried than in the past.  During last January’s provincial election, when it appeared that Abu Risha’s list had lost,  he threatened to turn Anbar into a "graveyard" for the Islamic Party if his List was not declared the victor.  Despite mounting claims of fraud, I haven’t yet been seeing many such threats this time, and don’t see any reason yet to anticipate that it will trigger the much-feared resurgence of the insurgency. 

That may be because the result does not come out of nowhere.  The Awakenings seem to have lost some of their allure as they failed to deliver rapid improvements in governance or the economy, and as complaints about corruption grew against the new incumbents.  Lots of personal, tribal, and political conflicts have played out in public, while the unifying threat of the intense battle with the Islamic State of Iraq has faded.   The Awakenings have always been fragmented and internally competitive, which was only exacerbated by the formation of electoral lists.    Abu Risha’s highly public flirtation with Prime Minister Maliki did not play well with Anbar’s Sunni citizens, and then he was caught in the national collapse of  Bolani’s list.  Meanwhile, Allawi appears to have captured the mantle of the "Sunni vote" for strategically minded voters, while the de-Ba’athification circus likely focused attention on the national level.  

Still, it can’t help but feel like a sign of the times.  Abu Risha and his late brother were the face of American cooperation with the Sunnis against al-Qaeda.  His defeat, and the general irrelevance of the Awakenings to the Anbar election results, offers one more suggestion of the waning influence of the U.S. and how little cachet such relationships still hold (and, no doubt, of the "betrayal" likely felt by many of its members).  Being America’s man in Anbar doesn’t carry quite the weight that it once did, not in the atmosphere of Iraqi  nationalism which has permeated the election campaign.    But it also may hold a hopeful sign that Iraq has moved on, with different national political issues and leaving behind even the recent past.   I find it reassuring that I’m not yet seeing much talk of turning Anbar into a graveyard over the election results… though I’ll be watching.