Iraq gears up for bitter, bloody election battle

Iraq gears up for bitter, bloody election battle


election battlesBAGHDAD — His campaign poster, jostling among the thousands that line the streets of the capital, has a message of unity: “Together we build Iraq.”

But as the country prepares for its first elections since the withdrawal of U.S. troops, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s political rivals accuse him of the opposite: stoking sectarian divides and dismantling its hard-fought democracy.
No party is expected to win a majority in Iraq’s parliamentary election on Wednesday, the first since the final U.S. troops pulled out of the country 2 1 / 2 years ago, leaving the results difficult to forecast. The unpredictability of Iraqi politics was underlined in the last elections four years ago, when the political bloc that won the greatest share of the vote lost the premiership to Maliki in the political horse-trading that followed.

Most observers agree on two things, however: Maliki is unlikely to give up without a bitter fight, and he has unrivaled power and resources behind him to help him cling on.

Since he took power eight years ago, in the country’s first elections after the U.S. invasion, his critics have accused him of centralizing power.

After the last elections, in 2010, Maliki took on the roles of minister of defense, interior and national security — positions he still holds. He also is head of the armed forces.

A law passed by parliament that would have prevented him from running for a third term was overturned by the courts last year. The judicial system is under his influence, rights groups say. Meanwhile, rival parties accuse him of sidelining their candidates from the elections.

“This is not what we promised the Iraqi people. This is not why we fought Saddam,” said Ayad Allawi, a secular Sunni who won the largest proportion of the vote in 2010. “This is not why allied forces lost lives. It’s an agonizing situation.” He said 38 candidates from his political bloc have been barred from the elections on “various pretexts,” but the country’s electoral commission said 34 have been banned from all parties.

Maliki’s office contends that it cannot interfere with court decisions, and that the appointment of key ministerial posts has been hampered by Iraq’s parliament. His spokesman Ali al-Moussawi said that after Iraqis vote Wednesday, Maliki is hoping to secure a stronger coalition, with negotiations underway on alliances.

“Nouri al-Maliki is looking for a political majority government, the ground is already being set for this majority alliance and an understanding already exists,” said Ali al-Moussawi. “Before, we couldn’t achieve this, and the government had to include all the parties. This has been proven to be a failure.”

But even if Maliki wins the largest proportion of the vote, building alliances to form a government may be a hard task. In his years in office, he has caused friction, including among fellow Shiites. Last month, supporters of the Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr burned pictures of Maliki in the streets. Maliki had insulted Sadr’s political acumen, and Sadr retorted by describing the prime minister as a “dictator.”

Supporters of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, another Shiite party expected to perform strongly in the elections, also took to the streets in Basra in solidarity. At a recent election rally, crowds threw empty bottles at the prime minister as he spoke, according to local news reports and videos that circulated online.

“We don’t see any progress,” said Abu Hussein, a soldier from Sadr City in east Baghdad, who says he regrets voting for Maliki in 2010.

Unemployment, poverty and a lack of basic services plague Iraq, despite being one of the world’s top oil-exporting countries. But for the 28-year-old, his biggest grievance is Maliki’s military operations in Anbar, which he says are politically motivated and achieving little, other than the deaths of his colleagues. The more caskets that return, the more support Maliki loses among his traditional support base, he said.

The Shiite-led government is fighting an al-Qaeda-inspired insurgency in the western Sunni province, a conflict that is edging ever closer to the capital. The violence has been stoked by discontentment among the Sunni minority, who complain of being marginalized by Maliki. After four months of conflict, the provincial capital of Anbar remains contested, while the city of Fallujah is still in the hands of insurgents.

Maliki has been regularly accused of provoking the instability for his own gain, playing on sectarian fears to rally Shiites behind him, dismantling Sunni protest camps in the region heavy-handedly, with one eye on the election.

“He’s trying by all means to hold to power, creating crisis after crisis,” said Hamid al-Mutlaq, a Sunni politician.

It is an accusation Moussawi describes as “utterly stupid” — arguing that the prime minister was forced to act, despite the sensitivities of launching a military campaign around the elections.

The violence has raised concerns that many will be unable to get to the polls, with more than 400,000 Iraqis uprooted in the majority Sunni province. Adding to the chaos, the largely Sunni Abu Ghraib has been declared a disaster zone after flooding, with as many as 100,000 more displaced. Sunni politicians have even gone as far as accusing the government of causing the floods to keep the Sunni minority from the ballot box.

Meanwhile, Anbar’s violence creeps ever closer to Baghdad, where car bombs wreak terror every day.
A triple bombing hit an election rally of the newly established political wing of a Shiite militia on Friday, killing at least 31 people, and Iraqis fear that election week will bring more blood.

In addition to the country’s Sunnis, Maliki’s policies have isolated ethnic Kurds to the north, who are edging toward independence.

“Unless Maliki is replaced or drastically changes his policies, these might be the last elections in a nominally united Iraq,” Paul Salem of the Middle East Institute said in a recent analysis.

But as Iraqis take to the ballot box, outside influence will be key. In the past, Maliki has had backing from the United States and Iran, although that may be falling away.

While U.S. influence has waned since troops withdrew, the growing rifts among Iraq’s Shiites and the country as a whole could mean Maliki will lose the backing of neighboring Iran. Some analysts say that the division he has caused in the country could see the Shiite state, which wields significant influence over Iraqi politics, push another candidate, although only if he does not win decisively.

“There is no United States; Iran is the sole, most important power in Iraq,” Allawi said. “If you are with Iran, you can get away with murder.”