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Tuesday, June 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, as well as by attempts to form cross-sectarian alliances. However, ethnic and factional infighting continues, sometimes involving the questionable use of key levers of power and legal institutions to accomplish political results. This was in evidence in the successful efforts by Shiite Arab political leaders to disqualify some prominent Sunni Arab candidates in the March 7, 2010, national elections for the Council of Representatives (COR, parliament), which will form the next government. Election-related violence occurred before and during the election, although not at levels of earlier years or at a level to significantly affect voting, except perhaps for Baghdad city. 

With all votes counted and some recounted, the cross-sectarian but Sunni-supported "Iraqiyya" slate of former Prime Minister Iyad al-Allawi unexpectedly gained a plurality of 91 of the 325 COR seats up for election. Nuri Kamal al-Maliki's State of Law slate won two fewer seats, and a rival Shiite coalition was third with 70. The main Kurdish parties, again allied, won 43. Allawi's slate had been expected to get the first opportunity to put together a majority coalition to form a government. However, Maliki and the other main Shiite coalition, opposing what they claim is the mostly Sunni Arab base of the Allawi slate, have reached a tentative agreement to ally to form the next government. Together, they are only four seats short of a majority. However, within the combined bloc, there are at least two significant challengers to Maliki to be the next Prime Minister. Jalal Talabani appears highly likely to retain the post of President. 

Allawi, who is viewed as even-handed and not amenable to Iranian influence, was considered to be favored by the Obama Administration and by Sunni-dominated regional neighbors such as Saudi Arabia. However, many expect that neither the United States nor these neighbors can or will intervene decisively to shape a new government led by Allawi. The domestic tensions over the election result—although likely to delay the formation of a new government until well into the summer—have not, for now, substantially altered the Obama Administration's planned reduction of the U.S. troop presence in Iraq. The current U.S. troop level is about 95,000, and a reduction to 50,000 is to be completed by September 1, 2010, although the bulk of that drawdown might be deferred until late in that time period. The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. Raymond Odierno, says that U.S. drawdown plans would change substantially only if the post-election political process turns highly violent—a development that is not widely expected. 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. U.S. officials are hoping that a new government might be able to overcome the roadblocks that have thus far prevented passage of key outstanding legislation considered crucial to political comity going forward, such as national hydrocarbon laws. See CRS Report RL31339, Iraq: Post-Saddam Governance and Security, by Kenneth Katzman.

Date of Report: May 17, 2010
Number of Pages: 25
Order Number: RS21968
Price: $29.95

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