Monday, February 14, 2005

ARE THE IRAQI ELECTION RESULTS a sign that radical Islam has lost and secularism has won; or do they indicate that Shiites in Iraq have won a mandate for improving relations with Iran? The answer depends on whether you believe Dexter Filkins of the New York Times or Robin Wright of the Washington Post.

Here is the first paragraph of the Times article:

The razor-thin margin apparently captured by the Shiite alliance here in election results announced Sunday seems almost certain to enshrine a weak government that will be unable to push through sweeping changes, like granting Islam a central role in the new Iraqi state.

And the first two paragraphs of the Post article:

When the Bush administration decided to invade Iraq two years ago, it envisioned a quick handover to handpicked allies in a secular government that would be the antithesis of Iran's theocracy -- potentially even a foil to Tehran's regional ambitions.

But, in one of the greatest ironies of the U.S. intervention, Iraqis instead went to the polls and elected a government with a strong religious base -- and very close ties to the Islamic republic next door. It is the last thing the administration expected from its costly Iraq policy -- $300 billion and counting, U.S. and regional analysts say.

Wright includes Jalal Talabani's Kurdish party, which came in second on Jan. 30, in the broad alliance that views Iran positively and that will want to strengthen ties with that country. She says that Talabani, who is generally viewed as the most likely candidate for president, "has roots in a province abutting Iran, which long served as its economic and political lifeline." And she quotes Juan Cole as follows:

"This is a government that will have very good relations with Iran. The Kurdish victory reinforces this conclusion. Talabani is very close to Tehran," said Juan Cole, a University of Michigan expert on Iraq. "In terms of regional geopolitics, this is not the outcome that the United States was hoping for."

Filkins takes quite a different view of where the Kurdish alliance's sympathies lie. The Kurds are pro-American, he says, and not of a religious bent at all. Far from leaning toward Iran, Filkins predicts that the Kurds will attempt to arm-twist the Shiites into agreeing to a secular, non-Islamist government and will demand other concessions as well:

The results of the balloting appeared to leave Kurdish leaders, whose party captured more than a quarter of the assembly seats, in a particularly strong position to shape the next government. The Kurds are America's closest allies in Iraq, and most of their leaders are of a strong secular bent.

Among the demands that the Kurds and other groups will put to Shiite leaders as the price for their cooperation will be an insistence on a more secular state and concessions on Kirkuk, the ethnically divided city that Kurdish leaders want to integrate into their regional government. Kurdish leaders also say they will insist that the Iraqi president be a Kurd.
Both the Times and the Post label their articles as Analysis, so this truly does seem to reflect a difference in interpretation of the same set of facts, and not just getting it wrong.

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