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Monday, March 1, 2010

Iraq: Politics, Elections, and Benchmarks

Kenneth Katzman
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs

Iraq's political system, the result of a U.S.-supported election process, has been increasingly characterized by peaceful competition rather than violence, as well as by cross-sectarian alliances. However, ethnic and factional infighting continue, as evidenced by the successful efforts by Shiite Arab political leaders to disqualify some prominent Sunni Arab candidates in the March 7, 2010, national elections. Some believe that, in light of the disqualifications, sectarian violence will flare anew as the U.S. military presence recedes. Adding to the tensions is the perception among many Iraqi politicians that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, strengthened politically by the January 31, 2009, provincial elections, is increasingly authoritarian, in part to increase the chances that he retains power after the elections. He has formed cross-sectarian alliances with a range of Sunni and Kurdish factions, to counter new coalitions by a wide range of erstwhile allies and former opponents. However, these opposing slates—also advertising nationalism and crosssectarian alliances—contain prominent candidates and large support bases and the outcome of the election is difficult to predict. 

The continuing infighting among the major communities delayed the National Assembly's passage of the election law needed to hold the elections. An initial version of the election law was passed by the Council of Representatives (COR, parliament) on November 8, 2009, but was vetoed by one of Iraq's deputy presidents, Tariq al Hashimi, because of what he considered inadequate guarantees of representation for Sunni Iraqis displaced by recent violence. After continued infighting, threatened election boycotts, and adoption of another draft law that attracted another veto threat, all major factions adopted a draft—similar to the first version—on December 6, 2009. The next Assembly will have 325 seats, compared to 275 seats in the current Assembly. The election date of March 7, 2010, is well beyond the January 31, 2010, date that was originally targeted.This same difficulty of achieving consensus has delayed key outstanding legislation considered crucial to political comity going forward, such as national hydrocarbon laws, and may account for an apparent increase in violence in Iraq as campaigning begins (February 12). 

To date, the election infighting and violence—evidenced most notably by major bombings in Baghdad—have not jeopardized the Obama Administration's announced reduction of the U.S. troop presence to about 50,000 U.S. forces by August 2010. Under the U.S.-Iraq Security Agreement that took effect January 1, 2009, and which President Obama has said would be followed, all U.S. forces are to be out of Iraq by the end of 2011. Senior U.S. military leaders continue to say that the U.S. draw-down plans are "on track." However, U.S. plans could be upset if the political infighting causes a major increase in violence or if the post-election political process of choosing the executive branch is held up for several months. See CRS Report RL31339, Iraq: Post-Saddam Governance and Security, by Kenneth Katzman. 

Date of Report: February 18, 2010
Number of Pages: 20
Order Number: RS21968
Price: $29.95

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