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Friday, April 29, 2011

Iraq: Politics, Governance, and Human Rights

Kenneth Katzman
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs

Iraq’s political system is increasingly characterized by peaceful competition and formation of cross-sectarian alliances. However, ethnic and sectarian political and sometimes violent infighting continues, often 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. diplomatic 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 serves a second term, was implemented in the formation of a broad-based cabinet on December 21, 2010.

The participation of all major factions in the new government was considered stabilizing politically and created some political momentum to act on key outstanding legislation crucial to attracting foreign investment, such as national hydrocarbon laws. The new government took action on some long-stalled initiatives, including year-long tensions over Kurdish exports of oil. However, the lack of a broader and sustained focus on governance, or on improving key services, such as electricity, created popular frustration that manifested as protests since February 2011. The demonstrations were partly inspired by the wave of unrest that has broken out in many other Middle Eastern countries, but were not centered on overthrowing the regime or wholesale political change. Some force was used to suppress them, but the major effect was to renew tensions among and within major factions rather than to prompt new attempts to improve government performance.

Political schisms, aggravated by the political unrest, could still cause serious instability. Sunni Arab fears that Maliki and his Shiite 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. There are significant tensions between Sunni Arabs and the Kurds over territory and governance in parts of northern Iraq, particularly Nineveh Province. Some Iraqi communities, including Christians, are not necessarily at odds with the government but they have been targeted by insurgent attacks in late 2010 and early 2011. Still, the overall human rights situation in Iraq is vastly improved from what it was at the height of sectarian conflict (2006-2008).

These splits cloud the approaching completion of a U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq at the end of 2011, in keeping with a 2008 U.S.-Iraq Security Agreement. With the formal end of the U.S. combat mission on August 31, 2010, U.S. forces have dropped to 47,000, from a 2008 high of 170,000. 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. Such a potential request has been the focus of several high-level U.S. visits to Iraq in March and April 2011. 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 returned to Iraq as of the beginning of 2011, following three years of exile for religious studies in Iran. He appears to be using the deficiencies of the Maliki government as a way to bolster his faction’s position and potentially to justify reactivating his armed Mahdi Army militia.

Date of Report: April 19, 2011
Number of Pages: 37
Order Number: RS21968
Price: $29.95

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