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Thursday, September 2, 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. This infighting—and the belief that holding political may mean the difference between life and death for the various political communities—has prevented agreement to date on a new government that was to be selected following the March 7, 2010, national elections for the Council of Representatives (COR, parliament). No new government is expected until the end of the Ramadan period in mid-September, if then. 

Contributing to the deadlock is the close election results and distribution of seats in the COR. With the results certified, 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. Sitting Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki's State of Law slate won 89, and a rival Shiite coalition was third with 70, of which about 40 seats are held by those supporting Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr. The main Kurdish parties, again allied, won 43 seats. Allawi's slate had been expected to receive the first opportunity to put together a majority coalition to form a government. Maliki and the other main Shiite coalition, opposing what they claim is the mostly Sunni Arab base of the Allawi slate, forged a tenuous alliance to form the next government. However, opposition to Maliki's continuation as Prime Minister caused this deal to unravel, leaving a number of candidates still competing to be the next Prime Minister. Jalal Talabani appears likely to retain the post of president, although this, too, is not certain. 

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. Iran, which exercises major influence over the Shiite factions in Iraq, is likely to continue to work to ensure that pro-Iranian Shiites lead the next government, but Iran is not necessarily insisting that Maliki continue. U.S. officials are anticipating that a new government could 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. U.S. officials and Iraqi citizens also hope that the new government can resolve the increasingly contentious shortages of electricity that have plagued Iraqi cities during 2010 and complicated citizen efforts to cope with the summer heat. 

The current political vacuum, coupled with the drawdown of U.S. forces to 50,000 in late August, 2010, has contributed to major high profile attacks that have caused some experts to question whether stability will continue after all U.S. forces are to depart at the end of 2011. Still, President Obama has announced that the U.S. combat mission will end on schedule as of September 1, 2010, and U.S. officials say the U.S. mission is in the process of transition from military to civilian lead. See CRS Report RL31339, Iraq: Post-Saddam Governance and Security, by Kenneth Katzman

Date of Report: August 24, 2010
Number of Pages: 26
Order Number: RS21968
Price: $29.95

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