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Wednesday, January 5, 2011

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. 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 power may mean the difference between life and death for the various political communities—significantly delayed agreement on a new government that was to be selected following the March 7, 2010, national elections for the Council of Representatives (COR, parliament). With U.S. intervention, on November 10, 2010, major ethnic and sectarian factions agreed on a framework for a new government, breaking the long deadlock. Iraqi leaders say agreement on a new cabinet is close, and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, tapped to continue in that role, is expected to present his choices to the COR for approval on/about December 23, in advance of a December 25 constitutional deadline.

The difficulty in reaching agreement had multiple causes that could still cause instability over the long term. Among the causes were the close election results. With the results certified, a mostly Sunni Arab-supported “Iraqiyya” slate of former Prime Minister Iyad al-Allawi unexpectedly gained a plurality of 91 of the 325 COR seats up for election. 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 Moqtada Al Sadr. The main Kurdish parties, again allied, won 43 seats, with another 14 seats held by other Kurdish factions. On the basis of his first place showing, Allawi had demanded to be given the first opportunity to put together a majority coalition and form a government. However, his bloc was unable to win the allegiance of the Shiite blocs, and Iraqiyya has reluctantly agreed to join a coalition in which Maliki remains prime minister.

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, the support of these neighboring countries was insufficient to restructure the post-election government formation process to Allawi’s favor. Iran, which exercises major influence over the Shiite factions in Iraq, worked, with some success, to ensure that pro-Iranian Shiites lead the next government. However, the inclusion of Allawi’s bloc indicates that Iran did not meet all of its objectives. The participation of all major factions in the new government could complicate efforts to overcome the roadblocks that have thus far prevented passage of key outstanding legislation crucial to attracting foreign investment, 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.

The long political vacuum, coupled with the drawdown of U.S. forces to 50,000 and formal end of the U.S. combat mission on August 31, 2010, was perceived as contributing to major high profile attacks in Iraq and a sense of uncertainty and disillusionment on the part of the Iraqi public. The continuing violence has caused some experts to question whether stability will continue after all U.S. forces are to depart at the end of 2011. Some believe that the reduction in U.S. leverage and influence in Iraq will cause the rifts among major ethnic and sectarian communities to widen to the point where Iraq could still become a “failed state” after 2011, unless some U.S. troops remain after that time. See CRS Report RL31339, Iraq: Post-Saddam Governance and Security, by Kenneth Katzman.

Date of Report: December 22, 2010
Number of Pages: 30
Order Number: RS21968
Price: $29.95

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