Iraqi Parliament members have unanimously passed a resolution opening elections in 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces next year, opening the door for a more stable political environment in the country and allowing for a new, more secular and more inclusive legislative body to be elected. The current system, which allowed religious authorities to dominate in the previous elections, have been reworked in order to make the electoral process more secular and less open to religious influence. It also allows for women to occupy approximately 25% of legislative seats, and will allow Sunni sects inclusion into the process, which they have boycotted since 2005, but who have allied themselves with U.S. troops in fighting against the al-Qaeda, thus allowing them to compete for positions within the the Iraqi government.
As always in Iraq's halting journey toward a new order, the reform was not complete. Elections were put off in the province surrounding the volatile city of Kirkuk, where Kurds, Sunni Arabs and other groups compete for power, and in three Kurd-run provinces. Staging fair and peaceful elections will be another major challenge: In the south of Iraq, competition among Shiite parties, including those of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Mahdi Army leader Moqtada al-Sadr, could easily spill over into violence. The importance of securing the elections is one good reason for President Bush's decision to withdraw only 8,000 of the 146,000 remaining U.S. troops in Iraq between now and February. Still, the precipitous drop in violence in Iraq during the past year offers strong reason for hope that a good election can be held -- and that the new Sunni and Shiite leaders who emerge will be well positioned to jump-start reconstruction in the provinces and negotiate with each other.
This latest benchmark has been what Ambassador Ryan Crocker has been calling one of the most important for the Iraqi's to reach and achieve. Another key benchmark expected to be reached is the distribution of revenue from Iraq's oil industry into the provinces and local economy. Perhaps, in light of the current economic crisis that is distracting the nation, for the moment, from Iraq and it's ground gaining, it should be noted that the strategy of gradual withdrawal of forces from the country has allowed it the time to develop a political system in which such benchmark achievements have been possible. Should the balance and pace that have been established be disrupted by an escalated withdrawal of American forces, it remains possible that the political stability that the region has been working toward might be undermined.
Once and Always, an American Fighting Man