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Media Conference Call: Iraq's Parliamentary Election

Speakers: Meghan L. O'Sullivan, Adjunct Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations
Brett H. McGurk, International Affairs Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations
Presider: Rachel Schneller, International Affairs Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations
March 3, 2010

Iraq's parliamentary elections scheduled for March 7 are the second since the U.S. invasion to oust Saddam Hussein in 2003. The outcome could be crucial in helping the country stabilize and overcome sectarian divisions. The scheduled drawdown of tens of thousands of U.S. troops from Iraq this year is likely to be influenced by the Iraqi political developments. CFR Fellows Meghan O'Sullivan and Brett McGurk, both of whom served senior roles in the George W. Bush administration on Iraq policy, say it is difficult to predict what party or coalition will emerge on top.

O'Sullivan noted that since the last elections, Iraqi parties have fractured. Groups like the Kurds, which were previously represented by a single party, now have multiple parties jockeying for votes. This, combined with an ambiguous legislative process about the rules when forming a government, increases the likelihood that it will take months for the elected representatives to reach agreement on a final government, O'Sullivan said. But these elections have potential to be a "very positive next step" for Iraq, she added.

Some experts consider Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki favored to lead his coalition to the most votes, but McGurk said he stumbled when handling recent actions that resulted in the removal of dozens of Sunni Arab candidates from eligibility. Maliki is "running on this national list [with an] Iraqi first, non-sectarian message, and he thinks that that is enough to defeat the main Shia alliance, which has been so dominant in Iraqi politics," McGurk said. "I think that is where to look for how that race develops.  It's a race for the heart of the voters in the south, where the majority of voters are."

Both O'Sullivan and McGurk played down fears that Iranians are able to control the elections behind the scenes. While acknowledging Iran has influence in Iraq, McGurk said Iraqis have pushed back hard against Iranian-funded militias.

O' Sullivan said Iran "is not in a position to determine the outcome of this election or to determine the outcome of the government formation period. . . . And I think Iran is probably in a weaker position than it was in previous government formations."

The future of U.S. involvement in Iraq is uncertain, pending the formation of the new government. O'Sullivan and McGurk said U.S. officials should keep their involvement to a minimum, only intervening when they see "broad boundaries" being violated. McGurk hailed these elections "the end of the beginning" of what is to be a long-term U.S. involvement with Iraq. He said there has been too great an investment in the country for the United States not to pursue extensive strategic, economic, and cultural partnerships with the fledgling democracy.

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