Iraq War anniversary a time for reflection

Scott Sadler Contributor
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Today marks the 7th anniversary of the start of the Iraq War and it’s quite remarkable to see just how far this country has come. In looking at the preliminary election results it’s hard not to reflect on the 2000 presidential election in the United States. It’s close and the votes are still being tallied. At one point this week, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki trailed his closest contender, former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. Now, with al-Maliki back in the lead, some 40,000 votes separate their coalitions out of 83 percent counted. He is fighting for his political life.

Reuters news agency suggests “months of horse-trading” to form a government and choose a prime minister while the Times describes the situation as “heated.” Now, there is talk of election fraud. According to the Associated Press, Prime Minister al-Maliki’s coalition “has accused an election official of manipulating vote counts and called for a recount.” The allegations are flying over alleged stuffing of ballot boxes and forgery and the public is not pleased. Abbas Sabah, an election official, said “People want us to rush, but it is very complicated. It is like trying to build a Rolls-Royce by hand.”

Iraq is “becoming the Middle East’s most freewheeling democracy,” said David Ignatius in an op-ed in Sunday’s Washington Post. By most accounts, Baghdad is pivotal to the prime minister’s hold on power. His lead in the capitol city is “a substantial boost to his chances to retain the prime minister’s post although he is unlikely to win a majority necessary to govern alone,” the AP reported.

More than 6,000 politicians vied for the 325 seats in the new parliament. Baghdad accounts for 70 of those seats. It is reported that members of both Prime Minister al-Maliki’s and Allawi’s bloc were on track to garner 87 seats each in the Parliament.

So, who could become another prevailing force? Remember that guy named Muqtada al-Sadr?  Some predictions after the Jan. 31, 2009, elections wrote him off.  I mean, he’s only made a couple of public appearances since 2007, has been hiding off in Iran studying religion, and for the most part has kept quiet since 2008. However, let there be no doubt that he remains one of the most influential religious and political figures in Iraq today. His bloc of candidates “look set to pick up over half of the seats from the Shiite slate” and elevate him to a “more prominent role in Iraqi politics,” according to The Wall Street Journal. Some reports speculate his group could win 35-40 seats. This is a guy who advocates for the killing of U.S. Soldiers and remains one of our strongest critics. Although for many Iraqis, al-Sadr’s movement has been seen as a badge of stain on their country.

“Things look better now than anyone could have imagined in 2006, but the United States still has a moral and strategic obligation to help this fragile democracy move forward—not least because of the thousands of American lives that were lost in the years leading up to Sunday’s election,” Mr. Ignatius wrote in his op-ed.  That was evident last week in Fort Hood, Texas, when Maj. Gen. Daniel Bolger, the 1st Cavalry Division commander, remembered the 69 new names on their Iraq War memorial wall from their latest deployment in 2009-10. “We fought hard to bring them all back and that we did. But we did not bring them all back alive,” Gen. Bolger said. More than 700 names form the wall.

The New York Times implores Iraq’s leaders to “look beyond their sectarian and ethnic bases and show that they have the skill and the vision to govern all of Iraq.” No one is under any illusion that this will be easy. Gen. David Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, knows the hard work continues. “Iraq still faces innumerable challenges. Progress is still fragile and reversible, but increasingly less so,” he acknowledged to members of Congress on Tuesday.

Miguel Marquez of ABC News was in Iraq to cover the elections. His Facebook updates spoke for themselves: “Baghdad is becoming a regular town. The city has really changed. It was the first time in five years that we could go out for lunch. One can almost be a tourist there now.” These posts are extraordinary just as much as the recent election. Both suggest the dawn of a new era in Iraq’s history. The question is will the Government get the message? Iraqis are sick of the violence and they want their country back. Sixty-two percent of the country voted on March 7 because they believe in a better future. Does the government believe in them?

Scott Sadler is an experienced communicator with an in-depth expertise with crisis communications who has served in senior level positions in the federal government, Capitol Hill, and in a military theater of operation.