Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Democracy is slowly taking hold in Iraq and the insurgency is losing its Sunni support-base in Iraq, analysts here said on Friday.
They spoke after some 11 million of Iraq's 15 million registered voters cast ballots on Thursday for a 275-seat parliament, a governing body called the Council of Representatives.
Voter turnout on Thursday was about 70 percent, compared with 63 percent in October's referendum on a draft constitution and 58 percent in elections last January.
"Basically the U.S. efforts are working and progress is being made, which doesn't mean there aren't problems," said Prof. Barry Rubin, an analyst with the GLORIA Center at the Interdisciplinary Center near Tel Aviv.
"The turnout is good because [it means] people think they're going to win. Intimidation isn't working. It shows that people want [democracy]," said Rubin.
President Bush, who referred to Thursday's election as a "watershed," has given a series of speeches this month, defending his Iraq war strategy against criticism from Democrats, who say he has no plan for victory and complain that he "misled" the country into war.
"The problem is the debate in the U.S. has very little to do with Iraq," said Rubin.
Prior to the election, five militant groups decried the election as a "satanic project" that violated "the legitimate policy approved by God." But given greater Sunni participation this time around, the insurgents did not threaten to attack voting stations as they have done in previous polls.
"The success is that the terrorist organizations failed to torpedo the elections," said Dr. Michael Eppel from Haifa University.
Some of the most extremist Shiites agreed to "play the political game," said Eppel. The most important achievement is the participation of the Sunni Arabs - the mainstay of the insurgency, he said.
The Sunni community, which enjoyed a special position under Saddam Hussein, boycotted parliamentary elections in January, a move that left them out of discussions on drafting a constitution.
This time they understood that they had to participate in the elections to retain their power in the country, said Eppel.
Washington hopes that high voter turnout among the Sunni population will create Sunni confidence in the new government and lead to a decrease in the insurgency. That would make it easier for U.S. and other foreign troops to withdraw from Iraq.
The high Sunni participation is a sign that most Sunnis are against the terrorist organizations, said Eppel. Terrorists like Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who leads al Qaeda in Iraq, are isolated now, he said. "They will continue to kill and murder but at the moment they are marginalized."
"The election is important not just because Iraqis defied the terrorist threat [but] because they want to make a difference," said Prof. Amatzia Baram, professor of Middle East History at Haifa University.
There violence will continue, but if Iraqis make the right decisions and put together a government within the next four or five months, it will be possible to see "the light at the end of the tunnel," said Baram.
Even with suicide bombings and a death toll that President Bush estimated at 30,000 Iraqis over the last three years, some 80 percent of Iraqis believe that it has been worthwhile to them, said Baram.
Some 90 to 100 percent of Iraqis may say that they are angry with the Americans; 80 percent say they want the Americans to leave, but if they were asked if they wanted the Americans to leave right now, today, only about 30 percent would say yes, Baram said.
According to Baram, the question that no one is asking the Iraqis is this: If they could cancel the last three years and return to the days of Saddam Hussein, what would they choose to do?
"My guess is that 70-80 percent would say... they don't want to go back to Saddam Hussein," he said.
In a recent poll commissioned by media organizations, 69 percent of Iraqis said they expected Iraq to improve, while 11 percent they expected things to worsen.
Asked to rank the priorities of a new government, 57 percent said that restoring public security was most important. The second priority was the departure of American troops at 10 percent and the third priority was rebuilding the country's infrastructure, BBC reported.
Long road ahead
The next few months will be critical in deciding the future of Iraq, said Baram.
Once the ballots are tallied -- which could take two weeks -- the newly elected parliament must choose a president and two vice-presidents from among its members. They will then choose a prime minister and other ministers from the council.
After they form a government they will have to start to re-negotiate the constitution, which purposely was left with "very large holes," said Baram. There are about 50 different items in the constitution that need definition, including how to distribute the country's oil revenues. Another issue is how closely Iraq will be connected to the Arab world, he said.
The question now is how much the majority Shiite population is willing to cooperate with the other groups, said Eppel.
About 60 percent of the 27 million Iraqis is Shiite, while 20 percent is Sunni and less than 20 percent Kurds.
President Bush said this week that Iraq was the "central front in the war on terrorism." He said the U.S. was hunting terrorists and would fight the war and prevail. "That is why we will not leave until the war is won," he said.
Baram said that many Americans now feel that the war in Iraq was a mistake. But they are now looking at the war with 20/20 hindsight, he said. They need to consider that they were looking toward Iraq "through the prism of 2002" and the belief that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, he said.
Some experts still believe that Saddam Hussein succeeded in hiding or smuggling his WMDs into Syria before the U.S. led invasion, he added.
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