News / Middle East

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.”

Barbara Slavin

Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for, 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.

You May Like

Video Obama: Action on Climate Change 'Economic, Security Imperative'

President spoke to reporters on sidelines of UN Climate Summit outside Paris, where leaders are working to agree on binding measures

IMF Bets on China’s Resolve to Reform

IMF announcement already raising questions about just how much Beijing is committed to such reforms

What Happened When I Landed in Antarctica

Refael Klein chronicles what it's like to visit one of the coldest, most desolate places on Earth

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
April 24, 2014 10:55 PM
Security and peace is very important for success of Maliki & Co. They should catch killers of innocent peoples and give them heavey punishment in front of public. I fell common Iraqi feel insecure, and this is the duty of Central Govt to give them peace,security,education and good business climate so they can pass good life. Already Iraqi suffered a lot after departure of Saddam, now this is up to Maliki to give them fresh air as soon as possible.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?i
Carol Pearson
November 29, 2015 1:23 PM
The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?

The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video Political Motives Seen Behind Cancelled Cambodian Water Festival

For the fourth time in the five years since more than 350 people were killed in a stampede at Cambodia’s annual water festival, authorities canceled the event this year. Officials blamed environmental reasons as the cause, but many see it as fallout from rising political tensions with a fresh wave of ruling party intimidation against the opposition. David Boyle and Kimlong Meng report from Phnom Penh.

Video African Circus Gives At-Risk Youth a 2nd Chance

Ethiopia hosted the first African Circus Arts Festival this past weekend with performers from seven different African countries. Most of the performers are youngsters coming form challenging backgrounds who say the circus gave them a second chance.

Video US Lawmakers Brace for End-of-Year Battles

U.S. lawmakers are returning to Washington for Congress’ final working weeks of the year. And, as VOA's Michael Bowman reports, a full slate of legislative business awaits them, from keeping the federal government open to resolving a battle with the White House over the admittance of Syrian refugees.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video After Terrorist Attacks, Support for Refugees Fades

The terrorists who killed and injured almost 500 people around Paris this month are mostly French or Belgian nationals. But at least two apparently took advantage of Europe’s migrant crisis to sneak into the region. The discovery has hardened views about legitimate refugees, including those fleeing the same extremist violence that hit the French capital. Lisa Bryant has this report for VOA from the Paris suburb of Cergy-Pontoise

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

As Thailand takes in the annual Loy Krathong festival, many ponder the country’s future and security. Steve Sandford reports from Chiang Mai.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs