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Column: Iraq's 'Second' Most Important Elections


FILE - Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki

FILE - Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki

Iraq is holding parliamentary elections next week but will Americans care?

Even inside the Beltway, the U.S. appears to have lost much of its interest in a country where more than 4,000 Americans died and thousands were wounded.

Only a few dozen people showed up earlier this week to hear former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad discuss the likely outcome of the April 30 vote. Khalilzad, speaking at Johns Hopkins University School for Advanced International Studies in Washington, said the elections would be Iraq’s second most important since 2005, two years after the U.S. invaded and toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.

Khalilzad predicted, however, that the results would be inconclusive, that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law party would get a plurality of seats in parliament but not a majority, and that Maliki — who has shown increasingly authoritarian tendencies since he came to power with U.S. and Iranian backing in 2006 — would continue as a caretaker during prolonged negotiations to form a new cabinet.

If those predictions are fulfilled, that is likely to lead to more instability at a time when Iraq increasingly looks like it is coming unglued.

In an interview Wednesday, Iraq’s ambassador to Washington, Lukman Faily, said there are two main reasons for the current crisis.

One is the fact that all U.S. combat troops withdrew at the end of 2011 (at the insistence of the Iraqi government) leaving Iraq not yet prepared to deal with domestic violence. The other reason, he said, is the spillover from Syria which has deepened religious and ethnic divisions throughout the Middle East.

Extremist Sunni elements close to al-Qaeda have taken control of much of Iraq’s Anbar province bordering a Sunni section of Syria. Sunni suicide bombers are also striking Shiite targets with hideous regularity: nearly 8,000 Iraqi civilians died last year in sectarian violence and more than 2,500 just since January. Meanwhile, Iraqi Shiite militiamen are going to Syria to fight on the side of Bashar al-Assad’s forces while Iraqi Sunnis support the Syrian opposition.

In Iraq’s northern Kurdish region — the most stable part of the country — politicians have failed to conclude an agreement with Baghdad on oil revenues and exports through Turkey and there are increasing noises about a “confederation” — one step shy of independence.

Many commentators fault Maliki for a paranoid style of governance that has excluded rival politicians. Maliki ordered the arrest of his Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashemi, the day after the last U.S. combat forces left, and also purged the Sunni governor of the Central Bank. Iraqi government forces trying to stem the unrest in Anbar have made it worse by killing or arresting popular sheikhs who previously joined with U.S. forces to defeat al-Qaeda during the surge of 2007-2008.

On the other hand, Sunnis are responsible for much of the mayhem in the country and paranoids often have real as well as imagined enemies. Maliki, who is said to rely increasingly on Shiite militias to eliminate his rivals, may have little choice if he is to avoid alienating his own Shiite base.

Next week’s elections will give him an opportunity to ease some of the divisions in the country or to intensify them.

Faily, a Shiite Kurd who hails from Maliki’s Dawa party, says Iraqis are “tenacious” in working toward democracy and far more patient than Americans, whose historical memory has always been rather limited. Iraq’s ample reserves of oil and gas “can provide a strong incentive for gelling the society and gelling the parts of Iraq together because of the need for each other,” Faily said. Unlike Syria, which has limited oil supplies, in Iraq “there is enough oil for everybody to be prosperous.”

Iraq also values its continuing if more modest relationship with the United States, Faily said. The U.S. is supplying military training and equipment, including Apache helicopters that will allow the Baghdad government to get a better handle on the Anbar crisis and to patrol Iraq’s borders. Noting that a strategic framework agreement between the two countries is open-ended, the ambassador said Iraq also looks to Washington for civilian expertise in education and health care and appreciates U.S. efforts to mediate between the central government in Baghdad, Anbar sheikhs and the Kurds.

Iran is also influential in Iraq but Faily said the U.S. role should not be minimized. He said his challenge is to deepen that relationship at a time when Americans are no longer fighting and dying in Iraq.

“Senators no longer need to go to Iraq,” he acknowledged. “There are no longer your boys there.”

So Faily is making the rounds of Washington think tanks, giving interviews, posting frequently on Twitter (@failylukman) and even took part in this week’s Boston Marathon.

“My participation in the marathon is a clear sign that we would like to strengthen people to people relationships, rather than just depend on Maliki-[George W.] Bush relationship which was the case before,” Faily said. “Is it frustrating? It is challenging for me personally. There is no easy ride.”
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    Barbara Slavin

    Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for Al-Monitor.com, a website specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America.

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