Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. He is writing a book for Penguin Random House about the national security decision-making of the Trump administration.
On Saturday, Iraqis go to the polls to elect their new Parliament and prime minister.
And the news here is that Iraq – which only four years ago seemed on the brink of collapse as ISIS’s army menaced the Iraqi capital Baghdad – is in the best shape it has been for years.
In 2014, ISIS stormed onto the world stage seizing Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, declaring its self-styled “caliphate” there, while the Iraqi military fled in ignominious retreat.
Last year, ISIS lost Mosul and today its black flags no longer fly over any of Iraq’s territory. The group exists now only as a rump terrorist organization, capable of mounting only sporadic attacks in Iraq.
The defeat of ISIS was an Iraqi-led operation supported by the US-led coalition. It was Iraq’s elite Special Forces Counterterrorism Service that spearheaded the charge against ISIS.
As a result, the Iraqi military is no longer widely despised; indeed it is now the most admired of any of Iraq’s institutions. More than 80% of Iraqis had “confidence” in the Iraqi military, according to a nationwide poll conducted in March by the organization 1001 Iraqi Thoughts.
The halo effect around the defeat of ISIS also extends to Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi, who also enjoys similarly high favorability ratings.
When Abadi became prime minister four years ago, he was seen as a colorless technocrat with scant chance of successfully governing Iraq’s fractious ethnic and sectarian groups – but there’s nothing quite like being invaded by ISIS to bring a nation together!
Abadi deftly managed the defeat of ISIS using the Iraqi military in alliance with Shia militias and Kurdish forces.
Abadi also benefited from another crisis when the Kurds, who dominate much of northern Iraq, voted in a referendum for independence in September – a referendum that the United States and the central Iraqi government warned them not to go through with.
The Kurdish independence referendum was a gross miscalculation by Kurdish politicians who already enjoyed a high degree of autonomy.
When the referendum took place, Abadi ordered the newly capable Iraqi army to take back key sections of Iraq held by the Kurds, including the oil-rich region around the city of Kirkuk. The central government also took control of all the border control points and airports in Kurdistan.
As former National Security Council director for Iraq, and New America senior fellow, Doug Ollivant observed earlier this month: “Iraq now has the best ground forces in the region.”
Abadi goes into Saturday’s election having vanquished ISIS and asserted central government control over the Kurds, which is a strong set of cards, but he is quite unlikely to win the outright majority that would enable him to become prime minister again, as there are a host of other parties competing in the election.
What is striking about these various parties is that none of them are running on overtly sectarian lines as “the Sunni party” or “the Shia party.” This bodes well for the future of Iraq.
What happens after the election will be as important as the election itself, because that is when the horse-trading will begin over which parties can create a majority bloc in Parliament, and then choose the prime minister. Abadi is regarded as the likely winner in this horse trading, although that isn’t certain.
That Iraqi politics is being settled at the ballot box rather than by the barrel of a gun is a great sign of hope for the country.
To be sure, there are significant problems. When Mosul was liberated from ISIS it was largely demolished, and reconstruction in Mosul and elsewhere is going to take many years and much investment.
And a wild card is Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal. We have already seen Iranian forces and proxies launch rocket and missile attacks on Israel and Saudi Arabia since Trump announced the pullout on Tuesday.
Iran also has considerable sway in Iraq and could signal to those Shia militias that take some degree of direction from Tehran to turn up the heat inside Iraq.
That said, Iraq benefits from having among the largest oil reserves in the world and a relatively educated population, which is why Saturday’s election could portend a much better future for Iraq.