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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Iraq: Politics, Governance, and Human Rights

Kenneth Katzman
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs

After extensive sectarian conflict during 2006-2008, Iraq’s political system is characterized by relatively peaceful political competition and formation of cross-sectarian alliances. However, the dominant factions have, by several accounts, often exercised questionable use of key levers of power and legal institutions to arrest or intimidate their opponents. This infighting is based on the belief of many factions that holding political power may mean the difference between poverty and prosperity, or even life and death. The schisms significantly 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 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 approaching at the end of 2011, the relations among major factions have frayed. Sunni Arabs, facing a wave of arrests by government forces in October 2011, fear that Maliki and his Shiite allies will 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 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 Administration asserts that Iraq’s governing capacity is self-sufficient and that Iraq will be able to continue to build its democracy, enact long delayed national oil laws, and undertake other measures. Some movement on the oil laws has occurred since August 2011. 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.

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 and governing capabilities caused the United States in early 2011 to call for Iraq to request that a relatively small number of U.S. forces remain in Iraq after 2011. An Iraqi decision on such a request was long hampered by the political schisms discussed above as well as threats by the faction of Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr to rearm his followers if U.S. forces remain after 2011. Maliki obtained consensus in July 2011 to negotiate with the United States to extend the 2008 U.S.-Iraq Security Agreement (SA) that required all U.S. forces to leave Iraq by the end of 2011, but negotiations failed when Maliki could not get agreement of enough major factions to continue the SA’s legal immunities for U.S. troops in Iraq beyond 2011. That was deemed unacceptable by the Obama Administration and President Obama announced on October 21, 2011, that no U.S. forces would remain in Iraq to train or mentor the Iraqi security forces. The Administration states that training will continue using programs for Iraq similar to those with other countries in which there is no U.S. troop presence, but there are 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. Concerns about increased Iranian influence as U.S. military involvement ends have been heightened as well.

Date of Report: November
10, 2011
Number of Pages:
Order Number: RS2
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