With the U.S. preparing to pull combat troops out by next summer, Iraq' s upcoming national elections, scheduled for Jan. 16, will shape the country's post-occupation direction. It's a new phase, with new political and social dynamics.
Although violence continues, it is sharply down from a year ago, and support for religious sectarianism has plummeted. As a result, Iraq is seeing people coming out into the streets, and the beginnings of an upsurge of civil society organizations and protest movements.
Indicative of this trend, more than 40 organizations are working on setting up an Iraqi Social Forum, part of the World Social Forum movement involving social justice and anti-corporate groups. Women's, youth, labor, peasant and human rights groups held a meeting in Baghdad in September to launch the initiative, a first for Iraq.
Another example: a national student organization, the General Union of Students in the Iraqi Republic, held an outdoor ceremony in Baghdad's famous Abu Nuwas public gardens in September to honor outstanding high school students.
And as political jockeying threatened to delay the national elections and limit voter participation, about 50 organizations met with the speaker of Parliament to insist that elections take place as scheduled with rules that promote voter participation and choice.
Some parties trying to hold onto power have pushed to raise the voting age, make a college degree a requirement for voting, and return to a "closed list" process where voters can only vote for a slate picked by party leaders. Some have tried to stall the elections by linking them to resolution of ethnic disputes in northern Iraq.
But the Parliament is expected to approve an election law that sticks to the Jan. 16 schedule, rejects new voting restrictions and retains the "open list" process that enables voters to oust individual political hacks if they want to.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's coalition appears headed toward another win in January, following its victory in provincial elections this winter. Maliki has accomplished this by adopting secular nationalist rhetoric, down-pedaling his leadership of the Shiite Dawa Party, as well as by his popular, tough action to shut down armed militias.
Maliki's State of Law coalition has attracted a range of Shia and Sunni politicians, tribal leaders, sections of the Awakening Councils that split off from armed insurgents, and figures representing various ethnic minorities.
He recently described his coalition as "far removed from a sectarian-based distribution of power" - a slap at his rivals in the reconfigured Shia Islamic coalition, the Iraqi National Alliance.
In fact all the Islamic groups, Shia and Sunni, have been forced to distance themselves from sectarian appeals and instead project "national" programs. But "they don't give any details, just sloganeering," commented Salam Ali, the Iraqi Communist Party's spokesperson, in a recent phone interview.
Maliki and others have borrowed slogans from the left, including talk of a civil, democratic state, but without explaining what they mean by it, Ali noted.
Many doubt Maliki's ability to bring meaningful improvement in people's daily living conditions.
"There is a big backlash against the political elite," Ali said. "People are just fed up with false promises that have not been acted upon by the leading political blocs. People have not seen any improvement in basics like electricity. Corruption is still rife. Nothing serious is being done to improve health care, education and so on."
But the problem is, "Iraq's democratic forces have yet to present themselves as a viable alternative," with a public disheartened after decades of dictatorship, war, and sectarian divisions, Ali said. Democratic and progressive sectors of Iraqi society - unions, women, students, professional and cultural workers, human rights advocates - are not yet sufficiently organized and lack the funding and media capability to reach and mobilize the masses of Iraqis, he said. They are up against powerful groups with well-funded media operations and financial backing from regional powers with their own agendas.
As a result, people who oppose empty nationalist sloganeering, religious and ethnic division, and lack of action on economic and social problems, simply don't vote, he said.
One danger is that, with the public wanting a "firm hand" against violence, if a strong and unified democratic movement does not emerge the country could return to a new dictatorship.
That is the challenge facing Iraq's left and democratic trends.
An important element in that struggle is the continuing battle for trade union rights. Unions are protesting government attempts to control the unions' internal elections. Iraq's largest labor federation, the General Federation of Iraqi Workers, issued a statement this month calling on Iraqi workers to "stand up to defend their legitimate rights."
The labor federation appealed to "the wider trade union movement, professional associations and civil society organizations" for support. It also appealed "for the solidarity support of the international trade union movement."
Although suicide bombings and similar attacks are down 80 or 90 percent from last year, they could increase as the elections approach. Iraqi analysts say groups behind the violence, including former Baathists, are using it as a bargaining chip, hoping to enlist the U.S. in their efforts to gain a political foothold: "We'll stop if you get us a share of power." Also, Iraqis charge that some of these groups are getting help from surrounding countries who want to keep Iraq in turmoil.
Photo: An outdoor ceremony in Baghdad's Abu Nuwas public gardens, organized by the General Union of Students in the Iraqi Republic, honored outstanding high school students. (iraqiletter.blogspot.com)