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Congressional Research Service: Iraq: Politics, Governance, and Human Rights

Author: Kenneth Katzman
November 10, 2011

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Kenneth Katzman explains how sectarianism in Iraq impedes governance and human rights advances.

After extensive sectarian conflict during 2006-2008, Iraq's political system is characterized by relatively peaceful political competition and formation of cross-sectarian alliances. However, the dominant factions have, by several accounts, often exercised questionable use of key levers of power and legal institutions to arrest or intimidate their opponents. This infighting is based on the belief of many factions that holding political power may mean the difference between poverty and prosperity, or even life and death. The schisms significantly delayed agreement on a new government following the March 7, 2010, national elections for the Council of Representatives (COR, parliament). With U.S. diplomatic help, on November 10, 2010, major ethnic and sectarian factions finally agreed on a framework for a new government under which Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is serving a second term.

In recent months, with a complete U.S. withdrawal from Iraq approaching at the end of 2011, the relations among major factions have frayed. Sunni Arabs, facing a wave of arrests by government forces in October 2011, fear that Maliki and his Shiite allies will monopolize power. The Kurds are wary that Maliki will not honor pledges to resolve Kurd-Arab territorial and financial disputes. Sunni Arabs and the Kurds dispute territory and governance in parts of northern Iraq, particularly Nineveh Province. Some Iraqi communities, including Christians in northern Iraq, are not at odds with the government but have territorial and political disputes with and fear violence from both Sunni Arabs and Kurds. These splits have created conditions under which the insurgency that hampered U.S. policy during 2004-2008 continues to conduct occasional high casualty attacks, and in which Shiite militias have conducted attacks on U.S. forces still in Iraq.

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