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Thursday, February 3, 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. Their agreement, under which Prime Minister Nuri al- Maliki would serve another term, was implemented in the presentation by him of a broad-based cabinet on December 21, 2010, 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. First among them was 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 supporters of Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr. The main Kurdish parties, again allied, won 43 seats, with another 14 seats held by other Kurdish factions (including 8 by an emerging Kurdish opposition party called Gorran). On the basis of his first place showing, Allawi had demanded to be given the first opportunity to form a government. However, his bloc was unable to win the allegiance of the Shiite blocs, and Iraqiyya reluctantly agreed to join a government headed again by Maliki.

The support of Sunni Muslim neighboring countries was insufficient to restructure the postelection 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 in several key posts, and the factional inclusiveness of the new cabinet, indicates that Iran did not meet all of its objectives. Iran may be hoping to increase its influence in Iraq now that a key ally, Al Sadr, personally returned to Iraq on January 5, 2011, following three years of exile for religious studies in Iran. The participation of all major factions in the new government, while stabilizing politically, 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. However, there may be early indications that the new government is acting on long stalled initiatives. Although some Iraqi communities, including Christians, have been targeted by attacks in late 2010 and early 2011, the overall human rights situation in Iraq appears to remain at levels vastly improved from those at the height of sectarian conflict (2006-2008).

The long political vacuum, coupled with the drawdown of U.S. forces to about 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. Continuing violence, although currently at relatively low levels, has caused some experts to question whether security will deteriorate after all U.S. forces are to depart at the end of 2011. Some believe Iraq could still become a “failed state” after 2011, including territorial clashes between Iraq’s Arabs and the Kurdish minority in the north, unless some U.S. troops remain after that time. Sadr and other Iraqi faction leaders insist there be no U.S. troops in Iraq after 2011.

Date of Report: January 14, 2011
Number of Pages: 31
Order Number: RS21968
Price: $29.95

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