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The Iraq stakes

A lot hinges on the outcome of the manoeuvering that has followed the result of the Iraqi elections for Iraq,the region...

Written by Rajendra Abhyankar |
March 30, 2010 11:03:24 pm

A lot hinges on the outcome of the manoeuvering that has followed the result of the Iraqi elections for Iraq,the region,for the US,and even for President Obama’s second-term campaign. Former PM Iyad Allawi’s secular Al-Iraqqiya group won two more seats than PM Maliki’s INA-breakaway Shia-led State of Law or Al-Qanoon group; the ruling Shia INA is a close third. An early decision on the new government in an environment free from post-election ethnic violence will ensure that US’s time-table for reducing troops to half by September 1 2010 and full withdrawal by end 20 11 will not be derailed.

If this post-election period of alliance formation,which could last several months,is not accompanied by violence as in 2005,the country would move towards consolidating a stable democracy. This time each sect is not contained within a single list and their common preoccupation has been to avoid being defined as either Islamist or sectarian. Still,several of the blocs retain a conspicuous sectarian tinge: the Iraqi National Alliance is predominately Shia,as is the State of Law Coalition,despite Prime Minister al-Maliki’s strenuous efforts to incorporate Sunni tribal groups. The Iraqi National Movement is a bit different in the sense that it has a Shia (Allawi) heading a predominately secular Sunni list. The religious side of the Sunni community,on the other hand,is represented by the unabashedly Sunni Iraqi Accord. And the Kurdish lists are dominated by Kurds,with a few Arab candidates on the lists in Baghdad and other governorates outside Kurdistan. For their part,the Kurds enter this election with two lists: the Kurdish Alliance,consisting of the Kurdistan Democratic Party led by Massoud Barzani and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan led by the Iraqi President Jalal Talabani; and the breakaway Gorran (Movement for Change),which has turned out to be a serious competitor.

Three or more blocs will be needed to form the next government and determine the next prime minister. In the lead up to March 7,machinations between the 5 major political groupings with the best chances had already started aimed at denying power to Prime Minister Maliki. An Allawi-led coalition,likely now,will probably be closest to US plans given his past record. If it gives Sunnis a share of political power it would assure Saudi Arabia,Kuwait and Jordan. It would also mollify countries like Saudi Arabia which have not yet opened embassies in Baghdad making it a condition for Arab states’ openness towards Iraq.

While an alliance among the two Shia blocs and the Kurdistan Alliance cannot still be ruled out,there appear to be real prospects of Allawi’s Iraqi National Movement and Ammar al-Hakim’s Iraqi National Alliance teaming up with President Talabani’s Kurdistan Alliance. If the Kurds agree,the presidency might go to one of the of Allawi’s bloc,while the Speaker of parliament would go to the Kurds. Such a scenario has become more palatable in Shia circles after the banning of many affiliated to the erstwhile Ba’ath party eliminated fears of their penetration of the political process.

That all aspirants have been in contact with their putative backers in Iran,Saudi Arabia,Egypt and Turkey speaks volumes for the role of Iraq’s neighbours. None of them want to see a recrudescence of post-election ethnic violence in the country lest it delay the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq.

At the same time all of them are aware that effect of Shia-Sunni strife or reawakening demands for Kurdish independence could have a backlash in their own countries. In the geo-political tug-of-war Iraq is once again seen by Saudi Arabia and Iran as the testing ground for their regional power status,especially after US withdrawal. From this point of view,a united Iraq with a consensus government in place will be seen as the best outcome. By the same token,an overly strong and rising Iraq equipped with American military equipment will be seen as a malign development given Iraq’s past belligerence towards Iran and Kuwait. Nevertheless Iraq’s neighbours,while seeking to distance it from the US,will equally want to enhance the value of their equities in Iraq’s emerging political structure.

The next Iraqi government will have to address three crucial unresolved issues: relations between the Arabs and the Kurds,including the status of Kirkuk; normalisation of relations between Iraq and Kuwait; and the effective management of oil revenues. It is going to require all the talent and resilience of the Iraqi people.

These elections could be the beginning of Iraq’s return to prominence in West Asia and a model for evolving US strategy in Afghanistan. India’s footprint in Iraq has become faint in the last five years. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Riyadh visit provides an opportunity to rejuvenate our long-standing ties with Iraq,another pillar of Gulf and energy security: let’s not forget that Iraq was our largest crude oil supplier pre-1980 and still has the world’s second largest hydrocarbon reserves.

The writer,a former ambassador to Iraq,is the director of the Centre for West Asian Studies at Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi

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