On March 7, millions of Iraqis "made their mark" and participated in the country's second, generally fair and democratic post-Saddam Hussein parliamentary elections -- an event that is exemplary for Iraq's Arab and Iranian neighbors. Among the good news was that election coalitions this time around were far more ethnically and confessionally mixed than they were during the 2005 polls.
The question is whether and how Iraq's fragile, young democracy and national unity can take hold and grow strong enough to resist internal pressure and external interference.
In addition to the Ba'athist and Al-Qaeda insurgencies that continue attempts to derail the democratic process, Iran's increasing influence among many Iraqi factions threatens ultimately to disrupt the further development of representative and moderate governance.
It will take time until all votes are counted and more time until a new government is in place. But it is widely expected that Iraq's two strongest election alliances, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's State of Law and Ammar al-Hakim's Iraqi National Alliance (INA), will probably receive the biggest shares of the vote. These alliances are Iran-friendly or pro-Iranian, respectively.
Whether the two alliances form a coalition together (the less probable option) or partner with one of the other two major alliances, the Kurds and the secularist, Sunni-led Al-Iraqiyah bloc, neighboring Iran will continue to enjoy considerable influence in Iraq and be in a position to increase its influence further after the U.S. troop withdrawal is completed at the end of next year.
Iran's Rising Influence
Maliki's alliance comprises dozens of political parties and popular figures, including his own Shi'ite Al-Dawah party, as well as Sunnis, Kurds, and Turkomans. During his premiership, Maliki maintained good relations with Tehran and Iranian leaders, notably Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In the run-up to the elections, Tehran repeatedly attempted to convince Maliki to join the INA and form a broad, primarily Shi'ite alliance.
However, running on a cross-confessional platform to unite Iraq, the prime minister resisted Iranian pressure. Maliki is reportedly opposed to Iran's political system of velayat-e faqih, the supreme leadership of an unelected Shi'ite cleric.
The leading group in the INA is the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), the Shi'ite party considered closest to Iran and led by Ammar al-Hakim of the influential and clerical Hakim family. ISCI's Badr militia, which fought the Hussein regime during the Iraq-Iran War in 1980-88, was built by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. In addition to political and financial affiliations with Iran, ISCI leaders reportedly favor velayat-e faqih, which would constitute an end to the current democratic system of Iraq.
Persuaded by Tehran, the group led by radical and anti-U.S. Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, a formerly bitter enemy of the ISCI, joined the INA along with Ahmad Chalabi, a Washington favorite until the 2003 invasion, and numerous others including a few Sunni groups and tribal leaders.
The two political parties of the third major alliance, the Kurdish Coalition, are the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which is headed by the president of the regional Kurdish government, Masud Barzani, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan led by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. Both are sensitive to maintaining good relations with Iran. They have supported flourishing cross-border trade and "mutually respectful" political relations, and they prevent Iranian Kurdish groups from using northern Iraqi territory to attack Iran. The Kurdish Coalition is considered a "kingmaker" in future coalition talks to build a new Iraqi government.
Only the fourth alliance, Al-Iraqiyah, is generally viewed as opposed to Tehran. Although led by a secular Shi'a, former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, this alliance comprises mainly secular Sunni groups and political figures, including Salih al-Mutlaq, who was barred from the election for alleged ties with Hussein's banned Ba'ath Party. Mutlaq is known for supporting an armed Iranian opposition group that helped Hussein during the war against Iran.
But Iran's relations with Iraq are not limited to the politics of the 31 years since the founding of the Islamic republic.
As in Iran, the majority of Iraqis are Shi'ite Muslims. "Iraq-i Ajam," (the "Persian Iraq," as it was called historically) including the lower half of present-day Iraq, is the birthplace of Shi'ite Islam and home to the shrines of Ali ibn-i Abi-Talib and Hussein ibn-i Ali, whom the Shi'a consider the first and third imams and rightful followers of the prophet.
For Shi'a, these lands are both "sacred" and "dear." A pilgrimage to Al-Najaf and Karbala is a lifetime wish for devout Shi'a. Tens of thousands of Iranians visit these holy shrines every year.
Currently led by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Al-Najaf is home to the most important Shi'ite seminary for millions of Iranians regardless of their political leanings. Most Iranians have traditionally followed Al-Najaf-based marjas, sources of emulation in Shi'ite Islam. Tens of thousands of Iranians are buried in the "sacred" lands of Iraq, close to holy shrines.
Even the aggressive anti-Iranian policies of Saddam Hussein could not change this relationship, which is primarily based on religion but has also become a cultural affinity.
The overthrow of the Hussein regime seven years ago has opened doors to the Islamic republic to use this religious, historical, and traditional relationship for its political goals. And it has done so quite effectively.
After the March 7 elections, many analysts predict that one of the two strongest Iraqi alliances, the State of Law or the INA, will form and lead a coalition government. Neither party can afford to exclude the Kurdish Coalition.
An State of Law-led government under Maliki would roughly constitute a continuation of the last four years, with the Kurds supporting a more balanced and less confessional and sectarian government. Some among the Sunni Arabs would still feel excluded from power, as they have in the past, and could resort to continued violence and insurgency.
A coalition under the INA would threaten to lean increasingly toward Iran and its political influence and system, with the Kurds trying to counteract that trend. Under this scenario, even more Sunnis and secular Arabs would feel alienated and sympathetic to the insurgency.
Both, admittedly hypothetical, options would face a turning point once all or even most U.S. troops are withdrawn from Iraq by 2012. There are serious doubts that Iraq's security forces will be able to replace the U.S. troops' stabilizing power in the country.
On election day, U.S. troops helped Iraqi forces protect voters from attacks and bombings.
Although the 2003 U.S.-led invasion has brought huge loss of life and destruction to Iraq, it put an end to the Hussein dictatorship and helped create -- and nurture -- representative and widely tolerant governance in the country. But once the glue of the U.S. presence is gone, Iraq's conflicting elements -- partly supported by foreign countries -- threaten to engage in a dramatic struggle for influence and power.
Other than a timely and efficient takeover by Iraqi security forces or a continuing U.S. presence -- both currently unrealistic options -- Iraq could well be heading toward more violence and chaos, or even disintegration. Iran appears to be preparing to partly fill any U.S. vacuum by solidifying its influence in Iraq.
The other way out, a U.S.-Iranian accord for Iraq, also seems unrealistic because of Tehran's continuing hostile approach toward Washington and the Obama administration's increasing distaste for what it sees as a fruitless policy of dialogue. The March 7 elections confirmed yet again that you can hardly fix Iraq without dealing with Iran in one way or another.
Abbas Djavadi is an associate director of broadcasting at RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL