Fifteen years after Iraqi crowds and U.S. Marines pulled down the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos square in Baghdad, Iraqis are heading to the polls. These are the fourth parliamentary elections under Iraq's 2005 constitution and they mark an important transition after the war against Islamic State. Despite all the difficulties Iraq has faced in past decades, including war, terror and ISIS-led genocide, the electoral season has left cities awash in colorful banners as more than 200 parties compete for 329 seats.
As the May 12 elections approach, the war against ISIS still looms in the background. In the northern city of Mosul, which was liberated from ISIS in July 2017, bodies are still being pulled from the rubble. Ali Y. Al-Baroodi, a local academic, rode out to western Mosul's Maydan district on May 1, where he photographed more than a dozen bodies in black and white body bags. "The local teams are doing their best to retrieve them from under debris, but the calamity is far beyond their potential," he tweeted. One team, led by nurse Sroor Al-Hosayni, has recovered 52 bodies in the past month.
There are still more than a million people displaced throughout Iraq, including many minorities such as Yazidis who were targeted by ISIS.
Yet, there are signs of hope. In the less-damaged eastern Mosul, thousands of election banners line the roads. Some of the banners bear images of women candidates. Under Iraqi law, one-quarter of the seats in parliament are reserved for women. Some of the banners show men wearing religious or traditional clothing. One Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) candidate wears his doctor's smock in his poster. It is a testimony to the diversity and pluralism of the elections -- and a success story so soon after major combat operations have ended.
In areas around Mosul, the crescent and the palm tree logo of Iraqi Vice President Ayad Allawi's Wataniya coalition are common. Allawi's party has sought to bridge the sectarianism that has dominated Iraqi politics by including Shi'ites and Sunnis in one list. He did well in 2010 when his party won a majority of seats, but he was pushed aside by Nouri al-Maliki's Shi'ite State of Law coalition. Maliki, a close ally of Iran, bullied Kurdish and Sunni regions of Iraq and is widely seen as responsible for the chaos and divisions ISIS exploited in 2014 when it took over Mosul.
Despite the vibrancy of the campaigning, there are reasons to be pessimistic about the elections. Iraq is a sharply divided country. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi created his own "victory" coalition to capitalize on claims he led the country to victory over ISIS. On the one hand, the multiplicity of parties could be seen as a sign of a healthy democracy. But many of them are relatively narrow and sectarian.
In the Kurdish region, the KDP will compete with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the Gorran (Change) party and several small socialist and Islamic parties. The divisions are historic but they have increased since the independence referendum law year. For example, the KDP is not campaigning in Kirkuk because its officials were pushed out of the city in October 2017 when Baghdad sent the army to remove Kurdish Peshmerga from controlling the area. The elections thus put the veneer of unity on Iraq and the Kurdish region even though many disputes are not resolved.
The same divisions exist between the Shi'ite politicians who dominate Baghdad and Sunni Arab areas that were devastated during the war with ISIS. In Sunni areas, Allawi is competing against local lists and Usama al-Nujayfi's Muttahidoon alliance. It's a bit difficult to see major differences between the platforms of these groups but each has its local support, some of which is based on family and tribal ties.
In years past, the rise of powerful Shi'ite politicians in Iraq brought increased Iranian influence. This increased during the war on ISIS; many of the Shi'ite militia leaders previously served alongside the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in the 1980s. Now, some of those leaders have their own "Fatah list" in the elections, though there are not so many Shi'ite groups running for parliament that members will be divided after the elections.
Will all these divisions lead to instability after the elections and provide a vacuum of power for extremists to exploit? ISIS terrorists, who retreated to rural areas after their defeat last year, have been carrying out weekly attacks on security forces. But the Iraqi security forces still receive training from the U.S.-led coalition. Last month, Iraq's air force even carried out airstrikes in Syria against ISIS in an operation the coalition praised as showing the new military power of the country.
If the elections go smoothly, and the parties can heal the divisions in the country, Iraq has a chance to create a different future after ISIS.
Seth J. Frantzman spent three years in Iraq and other countries in the region researching the war on terror and Islamic State. He is executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis. A former assistant professor of American Studies at Al-Quds University, he covers the Middle East for The Jerusalem Post and is writing a book on the region after ISIS.