(Editor’s Note: This op-ed was originally published in the Baltimore Sun on February 10, 2009.)

The recent provincial elections in Iraq confirmed the national identity of the Iraqi people. Voting overwhelmingly for nationalist candidates, Iraqis voted to keep Iraq together as one – an outcome that defies the predictions of many.

Myths and distortions about Iraq’s history have been used to promote arguments for a divided Iraq. Peter Galbraith, in an October op-ed in The New York Times, claimed that Iraq has an “absence of a shared identity … [and] there was never shared national identity.” While Iraq’s current borders derive from arbitrary boundaries drawn by the British after the First World War, people within these borders have lived for more than 1,000 years with an identity shaped by their proximity to Baghdad, a shared language and a shared literary, political and social culture.

Nevertheless, many believe that Iraqi identity is defined more by ethnic divisions than national solidarity. This conclusion is an example of how ideology trumps facts — especially from those who know Iraq only from the relative comfort of American soil.

It is easy to forget that the division of Iraq into three regions was perpetrated by the laws placed upon Iraq by the U.S.-backed Coalition Provisional Authority. The resulting sectarian divisions created the atmosphere for promotion of the “soft” partitioning of Iraq along sectarian lines, as promoted in recent years by Joe Biden before his selection as Barack Obama‘s running mate.

Yet in these elections, Iraqis defied such cynical expectations, voting for the Iraq they know – one based on a strong central government, not sectarian divisions. It is an Iraq where secular interests are primary and religious interests secondary. Looking to the future, Iraqis pushed aside the divisions that would create a permanent war zone. Iraqis voted in this election in a way similar to Americans in our most recent election: looking to leaders who will bring their nation together in the best interests of all of its citizens.

The election was held in 14 of Iraq’s 18 provinces. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s party won a plurality in the two major cities of Baghdad and Basra and did well in many of the other provinces. The new Arab nationalist party won nearly 50 percent of the vote in the Nineveh province. Muqtada al-Sadr’s party was the second-largest vote-getter in Baghdad and the south. As some had expected, Mr. al-Sadr won because he advocated nationalist sentiments more than religious sentiments. Finally, the biggest loser in Baghdad and in the south was the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, suspected of pro-Iranian sentiments and advocating an autonomous Shiite south.

The result of this vote demonstrates a rejection of the influence of Iran or the U.S. Iraqis never wanted an occupation and never will. They are reasserting themselves by voting as an autonomous nation, not one controlled by the interests of occupiers.

However, the success of Prime Minister al-Maliki’s party, friendly to the U.S. and strongly nationalist, shows that Iraqis are willing to reach out to America despite the occupation. And why not? America has a lot to offer once it respects Iraqi sovereignty and complies with the total withdrawal of troops promised in the Status of Forces Agreement signed by both nations last year.

The invasion of Iraq has had disastrous consequences, but it also created opportunities. Now Iraq has spoken, and we must listen. We should leave Iraq completely, as President Obama promised during his campaign. Whether it is within 16 months or two years, we should continue to withdraw our troops, demonstrating our clear intention to leave and hastening the momentum of Iraqi nationalism.

Despite invasion and occupation, Iraqis are ready to move forward, and will do so with their national interests in mind. With the turning of this tragic page of history, let us assert our moral responsibility by demonstrating respect for the independence and freedom of the Iraqi people.

Adil E. Shamoo, a native of Iraq, is a professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and a senior analyst for Foreign Policy in Focus. His e-mail is ashamoo (at) umaryland (dot) edu. Bonnie Bricker, a teacher, writes occasionally on issues of public policy. They are married.

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