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IRAQ: Elections Bring Joy and Uncertainty

Mohammed A. Salih

WASHINGTON, Mar 8 2010 (IPS) - The holding of Iraq’s third parliamentary elections on Sunday has generated a sense of satisfaction in Washington, but there is a feeling of anxiety about how the post-election negotiation process to form a new government might proceed.

Millions of Iraqis rushed to the polls amid major security challenges in parts of the country. Across Iraq, nearly 40 people were killed and dozens injured in insurgent attacks, with Baghdad having the highest number of casualties, according to Iraq’s Interior Ministry.

“By any measure, this was an important milestone in Iraqi history…Today’s voting makes it clear that the future of Iraq belongs to the people of Iraq,” said U.S. President Barack Obama in a statement Sunday.

The president did not lose sight of the challenges that lay ahead. “We are mindful, however, that today’s voting is the beginning and not the end of a long electoral and constitutional process… A parliament must be seated, leaders must be chosen, and a new government must be formed. All of these important steps will take time – not weeks, but months,” Obama added.

The diverse electoral scene in Iraq witnessed over 300 political entities that included more than 6,000 candidates competing for the 325 seats of Iraq’s Council of Representatives, or the parliament.

Many see the formation of the government as a major challenge ahead given that no single political group is expected to gain sufficient votes to be able to form the cabinet.

In 2005, it took around five months for Iraqi factions to establish a new government.

It is almost certain that one of the country’s three major coalitions will be tasked with forming the future government. One coalition is the State of Law, led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which is mostly made up of Shia groups and personalities but also has non-Shia elements within it.

Another major group is al-Iraqiya, a cross-sectarian coalition headed by former secular Shia Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. Al-Iraqiya includes powerful Sunni groups and figures such as Vice-President Tariq al-Hashemi.

The third group is the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), a combination of mostly religious groups whose influential figures are Ammar al-Hakim, Muqtada Sadr, Ahmed Chalabi and former prime minister Ibrahim al-Jafari. Al-Hakim leads the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, which was the most powerful Shia political party until last year’s provincial elections.

The Iraqi and Arab press is full of contradictory reports regarding unofficial results. Most put Maliki’s State of Law at the top of the race and others mostly cite to Allawi’s al-Iraqiya as the second main collector of votes.

However, none of these reports are verifiable or publicly sanctioned by election officials. A member of Iraq’s High Electoral Commission’s top board has told the Kurdish Sbeiy news website that the preliminary results of the elections will be announced by the end of the week.

Given the hostilities among various groups to varying degrees, it is not clear which groups might enter into larger partnerships with one another to create the government. It is expected that the two major Shia coalitions of the State of Law and INA may be more susceptible to forging a broader partnership to form the government, given that they are both made up of mostly Shia forces and many of them are religious parties.

Iran could also play a role in bringing the two groups together as it had reportedly tried and failed to do before the elections.

However, a coalition between Maliki and Allawi is seen as rather unlikely given the differences in attitude and make-up between the two groups.

Al-Iraqiya favours a pro-Arab world foreign policy in the region, while Maliki and Shias generally lean more toward Iran and do not have warm relations with some key Sunni Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia.

Allawi’s list has a heavy Sunni presence in it, many of whom still perceive Maliki and Shia religious parties in general as sectarian. The Saddam Hussein regime’s top echelons of power were filled by Sunni Arabs, many of whom were from his hometown of Tikrit.

“Al-Maliki’s State of Law list campaigned hard against the resurgence of Baathism, and Allawi and many on his list are ex-Baathists, so al-Maliki would have to eat a lot of crow to accept a junior position in an Allawi government. It seems unlikely, even if politics makes for strange bedfellows,” wrote Juan Cole, a Middle East and Iraq analyst, on his blog.

With a prolonged and intense negotiation process expected in Iraq, the major fear is it might lead to security and political vacuums that could bring an increased measure of instability to the country. In 2006, while Iraqi political parties were still wrangling over the make-up of the new government, insurgents blew up the al-Askari mosque in Samarra, the site of two holy shrines of Shia Islam.

That touched off a period of bloody sectarian conflict between Shias and Sunnis that deeply destabilised the country and led to thousands of casualties on both sides. Al Qaeda was blamed for the attack.

While preparing to pull out its troops, the U.S. is particularly concerned about any major deterioration of the security situation in Iraq during the negotiation process. It hopes to withdraw all of its combat troops from Iraq by the end of August 2010.

Senior administration officials have touted Obama’s handling of Iraq as a success and are keen to see troop withdrawal going according to the timetable.

Despite fears about the potentially destabilising consequences of lengthy talks, some say Iraqis may have learned from the past and will be quicker this time.

“Everybody has been predicting that the post-election coalition maneuvering will be long and painful,” said Marc Lynch, a Middle East expert, on his Abu Aardvark’s Middle East Blog on Foreign Policy magazine’s website.

“I suspect that this is wrong. Iraqis learned from that experience, and they’ve been spending the last half-year gaming out coalition scenarios,” he said.

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