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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Iraq: Politics, Elections, and Benchmarks

Kenneth Katzman
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs

Iraq’s political system is increasingly characterized by peaceful competition and formation of cross-sectarian alliances, although ethnic and sectarian 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 participation of all major factions in the new government is stabilizing politically and may have created political momentum to act on key outstanding legislation crucial to attracting foreign investment, such as national hydrocarbon laws. There may be early indications that the new government is acting on long-stalled initiatives, including year-long tensions over Kurdish exports of oil. Still, delayed action on improving key services, such as electricity, has created popular frustration that manifested as protests during February 2011, possibly inspired by the wave of unrest that has broken out in many other Middle Eastern countries.

In addition, the difficulty in reaching agreement on a government had multiple causes that could still cause instability over the long term. 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. 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. Sunni fears that Maliki and his allies seek to monopolize power remain, as do the concerns of the Kurds that Maliki will not honor pledges to resolve Kurd-Arab territorial and financial disputes. 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).

Questions remain over the political and security situation that will obtain when U.S. forces depart Iraq at the end of 2011, in keeping with a 2008 U.S.-Iraq Security Agreement. U.S. forces have dropped to 47,000, from a 2008 high of 170,000, with the formal end of the U.S. combat mission on August 31, 2010. Continuing high profile attacks, although sporadic and relatively infrequent, have caused some experts to question whether security will deteriorate to the point where Iraq becomes a “failed state” after 2011, unless Iraq requests the continued presence of U.S. forces after that time. Some question the ability of the U.S. State Department to secure its facilities and personnel and to carry out its mission on its own, without direct U.S. military participation.

There are also continuing concerns over Iranian influence over Iraq as U.S. forces depart. Iran’s main protégé in Iraq, Moqtada Al Sadr, has made several visits into Iraq since the beginning of 2011, following three years of exile for religious studies in Iran, and he might be using the failures of the Maliki government to improve services as a way to bolster his faction’s position.

Date of Report: March 1, 2011
Number of Pages: 35
Order Number: RS21968
Price: $29.95

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