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Thursday, October 6, 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, with a complete U.S. withdrawal from Iraq looming at the end of 2011, the 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 have territorial and political disputes with and fear violence from both Sunni Arabs and Kurds. These splits have created conditions under which the insurgency that hampered U.S. policy during 2004-2008 continues to conduct occasional high casualty attacks, and in which Shiite militias have conducted attacks on U.S. forces still in Iraq.

The political disputes, ongoing violence, the potential for increased Iranian influence in Iraq, and U.S. concerns about the effectiveness of Iraq’s 650,000 member security forces have caused the United States to call for Iraq to request a continuing, but likely sharply reduced, presence of U.S. forces after 2011. That would require a renegotiation of a 2008 U.S.-Iraq Security Agreement, which requires all U.S. forces to leave Iraq by the end of 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. However, some oppose a reported White House idea to retain as few as 3,000 troops after 2011 as too small a force to protect itself or accomplish significant training or other missions. No firm post-2011 number of U.S. troops has been announced or agreed with Iraq to date. With the formal end of the U.S. combat mission on August 31, 2010, U.S. forces have dropped to a level of about 45,000, from a 2008 high of 170,000. Iraq also is in the process of purchasing advanced U.S. military equipment, including F-16 combat aircraft.

The Administration is hopeful that, no matter the outcome of discussions on the U.S. military presence, all factions will finally enact pending national oil laws, crucial to attracting foreign investment. Some movement has occurred since 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 sporadic 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. See CRS Report RL34064, Iraq: Oil and Gas Sector, Revenue Sharing, and U.S. Policy, by Christopher M. Blanchard.

Date of Report: September
30, 2011
Number of Pages:
Order Number: RS21
Price: $29.95

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