BAGHDAD/FALLUJA: Iraqis voted in the first election on Saturday since defeating Islamic State, but few people expect its new leaders to stabilize a country beset by conflicts, economic hardship and corruption since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Depending on the outcome, the poll could bolster Iran’s role in Iraq and the Middle East.
Aside from geopolitics that have deepened sectarian divisions, Iraq faces an array of challenges after a three-year war against Islamic State which cost the country about $100 billion.
Much of the biggest northern city of Mosul was reduced to rubble. Security is still threatened by sectarian tensions, which erupted into a 2006-2007 civil war at the height of a 2003-2011 U.S. occupation.
The election’s victors will have to contend with the fallout from U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the nuclear deal with Iran, a move that raised fears among Iraqis that their country will be a theater of conflict between Washington and Tehran.
The three main ethnic and religious groups — the majority Shi’ite Arabs and minority Sunni Arabs and Kurds — have been at odds for decades, and sectarian divisions remain as deep as ever even though they joined forces to fight Islamic State.
“I will participate but I will mark an ‘X’ on my ballot. There is no security, no jobs, no services. Candidates are just looking to line up their pockets, not to help people,” said Jamal Mowasawi, a 61-year-old butcher.
The three main candidates for prime minister, all Shi’ites, are incumbent Haider al-Abadi, his predecessor Nuri al-Maliki and Shi’ite militia commander Hadi al-Amiri. All need the support of Iran, which has economic and military sway in Iraq as the primary Shi’ite power in the region.
Abadi is considered by analysts to be marginally ahead, but victory is far from certain for the man who raised hopes that he could forge unity when he came to office.
In office he reached out to minority Sunnis but alienated Kurds after crushing their bid for independence. He improved his standing with the victory against Islamic State, which had occupied a third of Iraq.
But Abadi lacks charisma and has failed to improve the economy and tackle corruption. He also cannot rely solely on votes from his community as the Shi’ite voter base is unusually split this year. Instead, he is looking to draw support from other groups.
Even if Abadi’s Victory Alliance list wins the most seats, he still has to negotiate a coalition government, which must be formed within 90 days of the election.
Amiri, 63, spent more than two decades fighting Saddam from exile in Iran and leads the Badr Organisation, the backbone of the volunteer forces that fought Islamic State. Victory for Amiri would be a win for Iran, which is locked in proxy wars for influence across the Middle East with Saudi Arabia.
But many Iraqis are disillusioned with war heroes and politicians who have failed to restore state institutions and provide badly needed health and education services.
“There is no trust between the people and the governing class,” said Hussein Fadel, a 42-year-old supermarket cashier in the capital. “All sides are terrible. I will not vote.”
Some people expressed frustrations at technical problems which kept them from voting in Falluja, which used to support Saddam, was devastated by battles between U.S. troops and insurgents during the occupation and is now far from recovering from the war against Islamic State militants.
“I have to vote it’s very important. My voice is going to waste. Are they telling me no election? Shall I just go home?,” asked laborer Khalid Abd, 65.
Critics say Maliki’s sectarian policies created an atmosphere that enabled Islamic State to gain sympathy among some Sunnis as it swept across Iraq in 2014.
Maliki was sidelined soon afterward, having been in office for eight years, but he is now trying to make a comeback. He is again posing as Iraq’s Shi’ite champion, and has proposed doing away with the unofficial power-sharing model under which all main parties have cabinet representatives.
Maliki, who pushed for U.S. troop withdrawals, and Amiri, who speaks fluent Farsi and spent years in exile in Iran during Saddam’s time, are both seen as closer to Tehran than Abadi.
The post of prime minister has been reserved for a Shi’ite, the speaker of parliament is a Sunni, and the ceremonial presidency has gone to a Kurd – all three chosen by parliament.
More than 7,000 candidates in 18 provinces, or governorates, are running this year for 329 parliamentary seats. More than 24 million of Iraq’s 37 million people are eligible to vote in the election, the fourth since Saddam’s fall.
In Kirkuk, the main oil city disputed by Iraq’s Kurds and the Baghdad government, 90-year-old Najm al-Azzawi has witnessed Iraq’s upheaval over many years: Saddam’s military adventures and the crippling international sanctions that followed, the U.S. occupation, sectarian bloodshed and Islamic State’s reign of terror. But he has not lost hope.
“God save Iraqis from the darkness they have been in,” he said. “It is the most joyful thing to vote.”