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Friday, August 19, 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, but ethnic and sectarian political infighting continues, often involving violence or the questionable use of key levers of power and legal institutions. This infighting is based on the belief that holding political power may mean the difference between poverty and prosperity, or even life and death, for the various political communities. The schisms delayed agreement on a new government following the March 7, 2010, national elections for the Council of Representatives (COR, parliament). With U.S. diplomatic help, on November 10, 2010, major ethnic and sectarian factions finally agreed on a framework (“Irbil Agreement”) for a new government under which Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is serving a second term.

In recent months, and with a complete U.S. withdrawal from Iraq looming at the end of 2011, the optimism of that agreement has faded and relations among major factions have frayed. Sunni Arabs still fear that Maliki and his Shiite allies will try to monopolize power. The Kurds are wary that Maliki will not honor pledges to resolve Kurd-Arab territorial and financial disputes. Sunni Arabs and the Kurds dispute territory and governance in parts of northern Iraq, particularly Nineveh Province. Some Iraqi communities, including Christians in northern Iraq, are not necessarily at odds with the government but are often caught in the crossfire between the Sunni Arabs and the Kurds. These splits have created conditions under which the insurgency that hampered U.S. policy during 2004-2008 continues to succeed in conducting occasional high casualty attacks, and in which Shiite militias are rearming and conducting attacks on U.S. forces still in Iraq.

These political disputes and ongoing violence—coupled with U.S. concerns about the effectiveness of Iraq’s 650,000 member security forces—have created momentum for the United States and Iraq to modify the firm deadline for a complete U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq at the end of 2011. That deadline is enshrined in 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 a current level of about 47,000, from a 2008 high of 170,000. In several high-level visits and statements during 2011, senior U.S. officials have said that Iraq should request a continuing, but likely sharply reduced, presence of U.S. forces after 2011. An Iraqi decision on such a request was long hampered by all the same political schisms discussed above, as well as the Sadr threats to rearm his followers if U.S. forces remain after 2011. However, Maliki obtained sufficient consensus in July 2011 to announce the start of negotiations with the United States on extension of the U.S. military presence. The retention of some U.S. troops leave might reduce some of the concerns about the ability of the U.S. State Department to secure its facilities and personnel and to carry out its mission on its own.

The Administration is hopeful that, no matter the outcome of discussions on the U.S. military presence, all factions will cooperate 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.

Date of Report: August
9, 2011
Number of Pages:
Order Number: R
Price: $29.95

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