America has a lot at stake in Irag’s elections

The United States has a lot riding on Iraq’s provincial elections this Saturday. And even though he’s not on the ballot, so does U.S.-backed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Elections free of violence and fraud, with a healthy turnout and with the political parties accepting of the result, would go a long way toward furthering the fragile stability that has gradually taken hold and bringing us closer to the day when American troops can leave. Nationwide, attacks are down more than 70 percent from a year ago, and a recent Pentagon report to Congress said, "The lack of essential services has now replaced security as the most important concern in the minds of most Iraqis." That’s actually progress.

A field of 14,400 candidates, including 3,900 women, from a bewildering array of secular and religious parties are running for 444 seats on the governing councils of 14 of Iraq’s 18 provinces. (The three Kurdish provinces will hold their elections later, and in the fourth, Kirkuk has never been able to reach satisfactory agreement on holding an election.) The security situation has improved to the point that candidates feel safe enough to hold rallies and campaign publicly.

A turnout of 70 percent is predicted. These elections, Iraq’s third since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, give the Sunnis an opportunity to reassert themselves after their terrible misjudgment of boycotting the 2005 elections. Successful provincial elections improve the chances of successful parliamentary elections later this year.

The local elections are also something of a referendum on al-Maliki. At one time he looked weak and ineffectual and to be facing a short tenure in office. But the dropoff in violence, the suppression of the Shiite militias and his negotiation of a security agreement with the United States and a timetable for troop withdrawal have greatly improved his popularity. Some Iraqis feel he’s grown too confident and are uneasy about his centralization of authority in Baghdad and his creation of two security forces that report directly to him. But that’s the kind of issue that democracies hold elections to settle.