Marc Lynch had a good piece yesterday excoriating the conventional wisdom about the "successful" Iraqi provincial elections and warning of potential trouble ahead:
I'm a bit confused by the rapturous reception across the board of the Iraqi provincial elections. I'm as delighted as everyone that the Iraqi provincial elections went off without major violence. But as I've been warning for many long months now, the dangerous part of the provincial elections comes when those groups who expected to win find out they didn't. Early signs are extremely concerning -- Anbar is under curfew after threats of violence, Diyala's outcome may signal a rapid escalation of Arab-Kurdish tensions, and that's not even looking at Baghdad [...]
The only result that the IHEC has certified is the surprisingly low turnout -- only 51%, significantly less than in the much-maligned 2005 election even with much increased Sunni participation. That should be a sobering number to those who have put such great emphasis on these provincial elections as a transformative moment.
That said, I want to focus on Anbar.
One of the main reasons that the U.S. pushed so hard for the provincial elections in the first place was as a reward for the Awakenings groups which had cooperated with the U.S. against al-Qaeda. For over a year the Anbar Salvation Council and various tribal groupings have been engaged in a nasty political battle with the Iraqi Islamic Party. The IIP controlled the provincial council after most Sunnis boycotted the election, and the Anbar Salvation Council wanted power for itself as a reward for its service against AQI. It almost came to violence at several points -- but it was always tamped down (in part) by the U.S. pointing to the elections as the moment for power to be transferred peacefully and legitimately.
I kept warning, publicly and privately, that they might not actually win those elections: that tribal influence may be exaggerated, that the Awakenings were internally divided, that the Islamic Party could draw on state resources. But I was told again and again by military sources and others that this was impossible, that the tribal groups controlled the streets, and that the IIP had no chance.
Well, early returns suggest that the Islamic Party has won at least a plurality in Anbar. Turnout was only 40%. Ahmed Abu Risha, formerly of the Anbar Salvation Council and now of the Iraqi Awakenings Conference [corrected], has been telling everyone who will listen that there was massive electoral fraud in Anbar, and that if the IIP is declared the winner the province will look "like Darfur." Another leader, Hamed al-Hayes of the Anbar Salvation Council, is warning that if the IIP is declared the winner his men will turn the province into a graveyard for the IIP and its collaborators. The Iraqi military has declared a curfew to prevent outbreaks of violence.
An uprising by Awakening groups in Anbar would be terribly violent, and the big question would be: who would step in to stop it? The Maliki government, a Shiite group putting down a Sunni rebellion? The US military, which has left Anbar to the Iraqis?
Today, there is news that Iraq is investigating voter fraud in Anbar:
BAGHDAD, Feb. 3 -- The head of Iraq's electoral commission said Tuesday that it is investigating "serious" allegations of electoral fraud in Anbar province that, if corroborated, could alter the outcome of Saturday's election, providing the clearest indication yet that voting irregularities occurred during provincial balloting.
A coalition of parties that competed against the Iraqi Islamic Party in Anbar submitted complaints that the commission considers grave, commission chief Faraj al-Haidari said. "We will deal with it seriously because it might change the result of the election in this province," he said.
As tensions sparked by the allegations of electoral fraud spread through Ramadi, the provincial capital, Iraqi law enforcement officials and U.S. Marines braced Tuesday for a possible outbreak of violence.
If the Awakening groups are awarded the election over the Iraqi Islamic Party, wouldn't that just cause violence as well? This seems like a damned if you do, damned if you don't scenario at this point. It's out of the public eye beyond this WaPo story, but this could be a very difficult several days for Iraq. Stay tuned.