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Iraq elections unlikely to bridge sectarian divide

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is accused of marginalising Sunni and Kurdish voices ahead of April 30 vote.

Last updated: 29 Apr 2014 06:41
Michael Stephens

Michael Stephens is the Deputy Director of the Royal United Services Institute, (RUSI) Qatar.
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Iraqi voters and politicians are concerned that escalating violence will affect elections on April 30 [AP]

On April 30, Iraqis will head to the ballot box in the fourth full election that has taken place since coalition forces invaded Iraq in 2003 to remove Saddam Hussein.

There are one or two crucial differences that mark Iraq's 2014 elections as clearly distinct from those that have gone before. First, the campaign and the elections themselves have taken place outside the bracket of security offered by the US and coalition forces, and it shows. In April 2010, one month after the elections, some 1,288 Iraqis had lost their lives, at the same stage in 2014, that number has risen almost four-fold.

Second, the three-year war in neighbouring Syria has stretched Iraq's resources to the limit: Influxes of refugees fleeing the fighting and an upswing of fighters linked to the al-Qaeda inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Lavent (ISIL) have brought insecurity and mayhem to Iraq's towns and cities.

The government led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki must take its fair share of the blame for this. In addition to its inability to stop Iraq's descent into violence, the government's rampant corruption, nepotism and acquiescence to sectarianising the internal security forces and the army, has left a bitter taste in the mouths of many Sunnis, Kurds and rival Shia groups. Maliki appears to specialise in alienating friends and foes alike.

The prime minister knows as much. Searching for his third term in office, Maliki has tried to reinforce his credentials as a strong man fighting (Sunni) terrorism to mobilise the Shia vote in his favour. Rival Shia factions, The Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and the coalition of parties under the umbrella of Seyyed Muqtada al-Sadr are gunning for him.

ISCI, unburdened by power, has escaped the ire of the Shia general populous for the Maliki government's failures and stand to do well at the expense of Maliki's Daawa party led State of Law Coalition (SLC). Should they gain enough seats, they may well prove to tip the balance of power away from Maliki towards a new prime minister.

What next for the Sunnis and Kurds?

Furthermore, the 2014 elections may well mark the beginning of the entrenched marginalisation of Iraq's Sunnis from the political sphere. Disillusion with Baghdad, fear, and pressure from ISIL for residents of Anbar province to boycott the elections may well see a sharp drop in Sunni voter turnout.

"I am confident this election will show the least relevance of Sunnis politicians in the status quo," an analyst who asked to remain anonymous, told me.

For us [our relationship with Baghdad] is over, we must find a new way forward after the elections.

- Falah Mustafa, Kurdish regional government official

Certainly the Sunni Mutahidun alliance led by Council of Representatives (COR) Speaker Osama al Nujaifi will lose votes and as a result find itself a side-show to intra-Shia horse trading post April 30. According to Iraq analyst Kirk Sowell, "Once the Shia get their house in order, the Sunnis will get ministries but Nujaifi won't get a look in."

Like the Sunnis, Iraq's Kurds are in danger of also drifting to the edge of Iraqi politics. The relationship between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Baghdad has soured significantly in recent months. It is made worse by the ongoing health problems of Iraqi President and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) leader Jalal Talabani, resulting in a further distancing of the Kurds from Baghdad and Tehran.

Attempts by the Kurds to exploit their hydrocarbon reserves have brought tensions to a boiling point. "For us [our relationship with Baghdad] is over, we must find a new way forward after the elections," Minister Falah Mustafa, head of KRG's Deparment of Foreign Relations told me.

The problem is that beyond the relationship being "over", the KRG does not know what to do. The Kurds do not possess the fiscal structures necessary to raise enough capital to break free of the clutches of Baghdad, no matter how much they might wish to.

But listening to Kurdish politicians you would think that their position was anything but weak. KRG President Massoud Barzani, for example, recently claimed in a Sky News interview that the time was right for independence, others have suggested a more moderate move to confederation. But there is little the Kurds can do to move towards these goals at the present time.

No matter how this election pans out the current period of Kurdish defiance and nationalist tub-thumping will likely be replaced by a period of horse-trading as the Kurds attempt to search for allies, of which there are now very few in Baghdad.

External pressures

The two key external players watching the elections are the US and Iran, both of whom Maliki made efforts to engage with at the end of 2013 and who have widely differing views on how Iraq should be handled.

The US has blandly repeated the same platitude that it wishes to see a united Iraq operating under the terms of the strategic framework agreement, yet simultaneously the US has been accelerating its Foreign Military Sales programme in recent months by approving the sale of 36 F-16s, 24 Apaches and 500 Hellfire missiles to Iraq to fight al-Qaeda.

US regional policy is all over the place, its stands against Iran's ally Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, yet has done little to bolster opposition forces against him. It stands with Iran's ally Maliki, yet is tied into deep security relationships with the Gulf states whose position towards Maliki and Iran is at best sceptical and at worst akin to a state of low level war.

Working out what Washington wants for both Iraq and the region is truly a conundrum. The best that can be said is that it wants some sort of state apparatus to exist in Iraq, but whether that is in the form of Maliki or more appealing figures such as Ayad Allawi is anyone's guess.

For Iran, increasingly filling the vacuum left by the US in Iraq and currently fighting a rearguard action to keep Assad in power in Syria and stave off the threat of extremist Sunni mobilisation stretching from Lebanon to Baluchistan, the stakes could not be any higher. It is well documented that in 2010, Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Commander Qassem Sulaimani brought Iraq's feuding Shia factions behind Maliki, and there is little doubt that Tehran would look to do the same this time. No matter what the election results, Iran will not accept a government which works counter to its interests.

Given that the most likely beneficiary of the elections will be the ISCI at the expense of Maliki, Iran will be hedging its bets. Should Maliki emerge weakened on April 30, Iran will do all it can to bolster him within reason, but would accept an alternative in his place. The entry of Iranian-backed Asaib Ahl al-Haq into the Iraqi political scene will help to bolster Maliki at the expense of other Shia rivals (particularly the Sadrists), even if it is only by a handful of seats.

Like the US, Iran would not readily encourage a fragmentation of Iraq's battered polity, for now it is better to play for time and (much like Saudi Arabia in Yemen) keep Iraq held together while simultaneously playing off its competing factions to prevent it from growing too strong.

Whether the elections provide Maliki with his third term or throw up a surprise that leads to rival Shia parties taking the post, little is likely to change in the immediate future. The problems in Iraq cannot be fixed overnight, and both the country's Kurds and Sunnis will struggle to feel part of a political sphere dominated by a heavily Shia government.

Michael Stephens is the Deputy Director of the Royal United Services Institute, (RUSI) Qatar.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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