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Trouble on the Ballot in Iraq

Author: Greg Bruno
August 6, 2008

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When Iraq's parliament passed a power-sharing law back in February, paving the way for provincial elections this fall, American politicians bubbled with optimism. The U.S. embassy in Baghdad deemed the provincial powers deal "an important step" (Reuters) in Iraq's transition to democracy. President Bush, who has made elections a cornerstone of his vision for a stable Iraq, said the development will ensure that Iraqis "settle disputes through the political process instead of through violence." But American hopes for reform through democracy have met with a dose of reality. Violence erupted (NYT) in the ethnically divided city of Kirkuk on July 28 after a provincial elections law was rewritten to dilute Kurdish dominance in the northern city. An election bill stalled (Reuters) in early August amidst persistent disagreements over how to deal with the city, and elections once planned for October could be pushed to next year (IHT).

Kurds, Turks, and Arabs all covet northern Iraq's oil-rich provincial capital. Experts warn (PDF) that unrest could surface in Kirkuk if a political solution is not forthcoming. To that end, UN mediators have been working to find a compromise (CSMonitor), and Iraqi lawmakers continue to negotiate an end to the stalemate (NYT). Kurdish politicians, meanwhile, took matters into their own hands (WashPost) by forcing a veto on the measure, a move that has so incensed Sunni opponents that at least one parliamentarian called for President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, to resign (Dar al-Hayat). The Kurds, meanwhile, continue to protest the election law—which would have postponed balloting in Kirkuk while the rest of the country voted. Flag-waving marchers appeared increasingly entrenched (Reuters): "We want nothing but Kirkuk," they chanted.

The Bush administration has long pressed for successful provincial elections in Iraq, but they have proven an elusive goal. Sunni political parties boycotted the 2005 elections, disenfranchising themselves from the political process. Now they are clamoring for a seat at the table, following an apparent thaw in which they are credited with restoring order in Anbar and other restive provinces. In southern Iraq, political strife between Shiite groups—including those loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr—has also intensified. Washington insists local elections will serve as a panacea for some of these problems. The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, told the Los Angeles Times in January that "it's probably going to be fairly important to have elections within the coming year as a means of regulating this competition."

Iraq has made measurable gains in recent months. Violence is down dramatically nationwide, and the government has enacted legislation to allow Sunni Baathists to return to government. Yet some analysts remain skeptical that further stability will come by way of the ballot box. Ilan Goldenberg, policy director of the National Security Network, a foreign policy advocacy group, argued even before the March power-sharing vote that provincial elections could serve as a spark for more violence. "Elections are the exact opposite of conflict resolution," Goldenberg warns on the blog Democracy Arsenal. "They are, by their very nature, an intense struggle for power." Reidar Visser, a research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, says Iraq's current political framework of focusing on "sectarianism arithmetic" is out of touch with Iraqis' popular and nationalistic ideals. Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, meanwhile, says politics remain the root of Iraq's problems.

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