Regional stability at stake as Iraq votes in landmark poll
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Iraqis headed to the polls on Wednesday in a landmark election, with the stability of Iraq and the region at stake as civil war rages across its western border in Syria and a watchful Iran looks on from its eastern front.
Nearly three years after US troops withdrew from Iraq leaving Nuri al-Maliki at the helm, the Iraqi prime minister is bidding for a third term at the helm of a country wracked by sectarian violence.
Polls opened at 7 am local time Wednesday and closed at 6 pm. More than 9,000 candidates are vying for 328 seats in parliament in the first national election since the 2011 US troop withdrawal.
Speaking to reporters after casting his ballot in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone Wednesday morning, Maliki said his bloc’s “victory is certain, but we are waiting to see the size of our victory”.
The election comes amid spiraling sectarian violence fueled on the one hand by the Shiite prime minister’s failure to reach out to Iraq’s deeply disenfranchised minority Sunni community, and, on the other, the fallout of the conflict in neighbouring Syria.
Iraq today is experiencing the highest levels of violence since the US troop surge helped curb some of the fratricidal excesses of the 2006-2007 civil war.
In March alone, 180 civilians were killed and 477 were wounded in Baghdad, among more than 2,000 killed across Iraq so far this year.
After eight years in power, Maliki has failed to tackle some of the endemic problems gripping the country, including high unemployment levels, dilapidated infrastructure and services and chronic corruption, the latter ensuring that oil revenues in this resource-rich country have failed to improve the lives of most Iraqis.
During his second term in office, Maliki succeeded in exacerbating Iraq’s sectarian problems with his divisive politics, message of vengeance and concentration of power, especially in the powerful defence and interior ministries.
Despite all the problems, the incumbent still leads the 2014 election field, running on a platform of security and stability.
“Even if the objective assessment of Nuri al-Maliki is negative, he is a formidable strategist who still manages to present himself as the alternative to chaos by surfing on Iraqi political divisions, which he himself has inflamed, which in turn have helped keep him in power,” said political analyst Karim Sader in an interview with FRANCE 24.
When Shiite militias aid Iraqi security forces
Security was tightened across the country for the vote, with authorities extending a previously announced three-day break to a weeklong national holiday, a regular feature of recent Iraqi elections designed to empty the streets and allow security forces access to attack sites.
Hundreds of thousands of security officials were posted across the country to guard voting centers with police and army checkpoints positioned roughly 500 meters apart in central Baghdad.
Nevertheless, there were reports of scattered attacks on voting day, including a bomb blast near a polling station in the northern Iraqi town of Dibs and a mortar attack near a voting centre west of Baghdad.
At least five people were killed and 16 wounded in election-related violence on Wednesday, according to the AP news agency.
On the eve of the election, twin bombings in a market town northeast of Baghdad killed 15 people, according to security officials. The previous day, suicide bombers targeted polling stations where security officials were casting their ballots in an early vote, killing at least 46 people.
The early balloting was meant to free up the one million-strong military and security forces so they could protect polling stations and voters on election day.
The 2014 election campaign was marked by deadly violence, including a series of bombings last Friday targeting an election rally for the militant Shiite group Asaib Ahl al-Haq at a sports stadium in eastern Baghdad.
Asaib Ahl al-Haq is one of two Shiite militant groups which were suppressed by US troops but have since emerged as militia groups aiding Iraqi security forces in their fight against al Qaeda-linked Sunni extremists, according to news reports.
While Iraqi officials have denied that Asaib and Kata'ib Hezbollah, another Shiite group, are fighting with the military, a Shiite politician opposed to Maliki told Reuters that a paramilitary group “of mujahideen and Sons of Iraq” had drawn most of its fighters from Asaib and Kata’ib. The fighters defend the authorities in Baghdad as part of an organisation, attached to the prime minister's military office, according to Reuters.
Iraqi security forces backed by Shiite militia groups have been waging a counter-terror offensive against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the western Anbar province.
Balloting did not take place in parts of the vast mostly Sunni Anbar province, where ISIS militants control several neighbourhoods in Fallujah and the provincial capital of Ramadi.
Splits in the old sectarian blocs
Outside the old Sunni triangle – which includes the cities of Baghdad, Ramadi and Fallujah – opposition to Maliki has been rising within his own majority Shiite community.
This year, the lineup of alliances and blocs that has characterised post-2003 Iraqi politics includes al-Muwatin, or the Citizen bloc, which features Maliki’s longtime Shiite rival group, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and the movement of firebrand cleric Muqtada Sadr. The alliance effectively reaches out to the Shiite middle class as well as poorer Shiites who are attracted to Sadr’s message.
Across the sectarian divide, there has also been a split within the secular Sunni camp. The old Iraqiya alliance is now split into three blocs headed by Osama al-Nujaifi, the speaker of parliament; Saleh al-Mutlak, the deputy premier; and Ayad Allawi, the former head of Iraqiya.
The divides have led Reidar Visser, a senior research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, to argue in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs that the new “Iraqi politics have refused to play by the old sectarian rules”.
Following the last election in 2010, it took nearly eight months of intense backdoor negotiations for Iraq’s bickering politicians to finally form a government.
While Maliki may win a plurality of the votes, he is unlikely to win an absolute majority in the April 30 election. This could pave the way for a repeat of a post-2010 electoral scenario, which, according to political analyst Sader, “would be a very bad omen for Iraqi unity because it would increase sectarian divisions that have been exacerbated on a regional level by the Syrian crisis.”
What will Iran do?
The 2010 post-electoral impasse effectively ended when Iraq’s political leaders were summoned to a meeting across the border, in the Iranian holy city of Qom. The high-level meeting was hosted by Qasim Sulaymani, head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ powerful Qods Force, according to the New Yorker.
That’s where Sulaymani weighed in in favour of Maliki, according to New Yorker staff writer Dexter Filkins.
But this time, Kenneth Pollack, a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, notes that Iran is disenchanted with Maliki.
In a blog posted on the Washington DC-based Brookings Institute website, Pollack noted that a senior Iraqi opposition politician disclosed that “Qods Force Commander Qasim Sulaymani had told him that when Sulaymani was in [the Iraqi city of] Najaf earlier this year, [the powerful Iraqi Shiite cleric] Ayatollah Sistani asked him to ensure that Iraq gets a different prime minister, to which Sulaymani reportedly replied, “your words are my order”.”
The question of who takes orders from whom in the Middle East has long dominated conversations in political capitals across the world. Following the April 30 election, a new chapter in this old discourse is likely to open up in Iraq – with serious implications in a region that is still coming to terms with the geopolitical effects of the Arab Spring.