Will Iraq explode again?

Issue 

On March 7, Iraqi national elections were held. The results are not expected to be known for months. With "only" 43 people killed in related violence, the Western media hailed them as a step forward in developing a "democratic" Iraq. Eric Ruder looks at the background to US plans to create a stable client state in the oil-rich nation. The article below is abridged from .

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Amid an upsurge in sectarian wrangling and violence, Iraqis headed to the polls on March 7 for the most important parliamentary elections since the US occupation of Iraq began in 2003.

The violence appears to be aimed at undermining the appeal of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, whose support depends in part on an improved security situation in Iraq.

At the height of the sectarian violence in 2007, 3000 bodies a month were piling up in the morgues of greater Baghdad, compared with a few hundred killings per month this year.

The Obama administration is hoping the vote will lead to a credible government that bows to US interests.

This was the second parliamentary vote since the US occupation began, and will decide which candidates win seats in Iraq's 325-member parliament. The party (or alliance of parties) with the most seats will nominate the next prime minister and form a new government.

But there's no guarantee that the outcome will create a sufficiently stable government that will allow the US to continue its pullback of troops.

In January, the election campaign took a sectarian turn when Iraq's Justice and Accountability Commission banned some 500 candidates (later reduced to 145) from running for office due to their alleged ties to Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated Baath Party.

The most prominent excluded candidates were Sunni muslims. Ahmed Chalabi, a Shiite muslim politician who was once the first choice of the Bush administration to run Iraq, but who has since emerged as a strong ally of Iran, played a critical role in pushing through the commission's decision to ban the former Baathists.

This stoked fears that the ban was aimed at enhancing the prospects of Iraq's Shia and pro-Iranian candidates.

As the campaign increasingly turned on mobilising voters on the basis of their religious and ethnic identification, the essential needs of Iraqis — greater security, rebuilding Iraq's battered civilian infrastructure, and breathing life back into Iraq's economy —fell by the wayside.

Key factor driving the sectarian politicking is the extent to which the Iraqi election is shaping up as a proxy contest between the US and Iran in their bids to develop an Iraqi regime friendly to their respective interests.

Immediately after the 2003 invasion, the Bush administration insisted on a blanket policy of "de-Baathification"— rooting members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party out of public institutions.

The resulting power vacuum promoted what were considered US-friendly Shia political parties.

This had the unintended consequence of enhancing Iran's influence in US-occupied Iraq. This was the opposite of what the US invasion was supposed to accomplish —the encirclement of Iran by an ever-growing web of pro-US governments.

Now, the US is pressing for greater Sunni participation in the elections. Having bought off former Sunni resistance leaders and re-branded them as "sons of Iraq", the US wants to keep them in the political mix to prevent them once again taking up arms.

At the same time, the US needs help consolidating the Shia-dominated government. So, despite the sharpening of anti-Iran rhetoric from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, it appears that the US may still be pursuing an awkward collaboration with Iran in maintaining stability in Iraq.

The US military's unwillingness to confront Iranian-backed paramilitaries inside Iraq, as well as the reluctance of the US to give the green light to Israel's desire for war with Iran, would seem to signal the continuation of this power-sharing agreement.

But the dynamics of Iraqi politics may well frustrate US attempts to create a stable client regime.

In 2009, Maliki tried to move beyond the narrow Shia appeal of his Dawa party that had relied heavily on US support for its hold on power. He sought to forge a broader, nationalist coalition called State of Law that could more effectively compete in this national election.

But in his quest to hold on to a Shia base of support, Maliki faces increasingly stiff competition from the Iraqi National Alliance, based among followers of Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq.

This raises many concerns for US interests. Bloomberg noted on March 4: "Parliamentary elections may produce a weak or unstable government incapable of tendering new oil contracts, [according to] Samuel Ciszuk, a London-based analyst at IHS Global Insight."

The explosive ethnic struggle for control over the oil-rich city of Kirkuk could also spark open confrontation — one that ultimately could pull the entire country apart.

Home to a large number of Kurds and Turkmen, Saddam Hussein had systematically encouraged Arabs to settle in and around Kirkuk to ensure Baathist influence in the area. Since Saddam's ouster, Kurds have sought to supplant the political influence of the Arab population.

The situation was so volatile that voters in Kirkuk did not even participate in the 2005 elections.

Whatever the final results of the March 7 vote, there are certain to be bitter recriminations about the outcome. And it's far from certain that Iraq's central government will succeed in containing the possible fallout.

As a result, the Obama administration's pledge to withdraw all combat troops by August looks doubtful.

Top US commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, said in February this deadline may be extended in the face of Iranian "meddling".

US officials remain deaf to the irony of complaining about the meddlesome intervention of "outside parties" in Iraq.

Obama administration officials want to withdraw from Iraq and declare victory. Yet sooner or later, they must confront the fact that the presence of 30,000 to 50,000 US soldiers will likely be necessary for years to come in order to ensure a post-war Iraq that's "friendly" to the US.