Parliamentary elections this week in Iraq have significant implications for European countries, which are concerned about instability in the Middle East. But European leaders are preoccupied with other issues, and in any case have little leverage on developments in and around Iraq.
Wednesday's vote has brought longstanding rivalries back to the forefront, often with violent results. Suicide bombers attacked a Kurdish political rally Monday, killing at least 30 people. And two bombs rocked an outdoor market northeast of Baghdad Tuesday, killing at least 17 people and wounding 42, the Associated Press reported.
Such incidents have hardened the country’s sectarian divide.
''I'd like to say that neither a Sunni citizen would vote for a Shi'ite candidate nor a Shi'ite would vote for a Sunni candidate,” said Mohammed Abdul-Jabar al Firtoosi, an Iraqi citizen who lost three of his sons in a September attack. “This is reality."
Still, the election is proceeding, with security forces casting their votes early so they can safeguard polling on Election Day.
It’s an important juncture for a country where the United States and Europe lost thousands of troops ousting dictator Saddam Hussein and installing a democratic system.
But now, just over two years after the last foreign troops left the country, Western leaders are focused on the crisis in Ukraine, the future of the NATO alliance, nuclear talks with Iran, and just about anything except domestic politics in Iraq and other Arab countries.
“I won’t say the region is forgotten, but it’s clearly not the priority of the Europeans for the moment,” said Myriam Benraad, a Middle East analyst with the European Council on Foreign Relations in Paris.
Benraad said if Europe wants to influence Iraqi leaders, it should make its policy less bureaucratic and less focused on economic issues, with more direct involvement by senior leaders and more focus on issues of democracy and human rights.
Europe, Benraad said, “has to very seriously revamp its ‘neighborhood’ policy if it wants to maintain any credibility that it is indeed supporting democratic reform.”
Western leaders have not been able to influence Egypt’s swings from authoritarian rule to an Islamist-led government and now back to authoritarian rule, nor Syria’s civil war and the apparent improvement of President Bashar al-Assad’s position, nor the Palestinian political alliance that appears to have doomed U.S.-backed peace talks.
Analysts say frustration and other pressing issues have led Western officials to think more in terms of preventing events in the Middle East from spiraling out of control than about potential opportunities for constructive engagement.