By most accounts, Iraq’s provincial elections on Saturday went off smoothly, a lower-than-hoped-for turnout and scattered problems with voter lists more than counterbalanced by the conspicuous lack of violence. Predictably, some are taking this as a sign of vindication for U.S. policies like the “surge.” Gateway Pundit conveys the scorn of italics, taking umbrage at the fact that, in praising the peaceful elections, President Obama neglected to mention the U.S. military specifically by name.

Security for the country’s first ballot since 2005 was extremely tight, with Iraqi police and military deployed in force, and Mr Obama praised the technical assistance by the United Nations and other organisations to Iraq’s electoral commission, which he said “performed professionally under difficult circumstances.”

With all due respect to the U.S. military, Gateway Pundit’s criticism misses the point. Others may debate the extent to which the “surge” provided Iraq’s overall environment of improved security, but at their heart, these elections were a political triumph. And in alluding to the accomplishments of UN assistance — the training, for example, of more than 60,000 electoral observers — Obama is acknowledging what has often gone underappreciated: that the UN is filling a crucial role in providing much of the key political assistance that Iraq will need moving forward.

Conducting an election more or less peacefully, marred by only a few irregularities, may seem to set a low bar — particularly with the extensive security preparation and the fact that elections in the country’s most contentious city, Kirkuk, are (wisely) being indefinitely postponed — but Saturday’s experience must be contrasted with the elections of three years ago. Despite the higher turnout and the iconic image of the purple finger that emerged from those elections, they occurred in the midst of a bloodbath, with the Sunni insurgency roiling and the Sunni boycott called for by Moqtada al-Sadr skewing the balance of the Iraqi parliament and acceleratingthe ethnic factionalization of Iraqi politics. That said, we should be wary of turning the saga of Iraq’s transformation into too neat a narrative. The story is not an arc, and these elections do not certify Iraq as a thriving democracy. The fact that so much assistance and security was needed in the first place should not be overlooked.

(image from flickr user thomas23 under a Creative Commons license)

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