If feuding MPs in Baghdad, deadlocked on resolving a symbolic election law, needed any prompting about the reality that still exists in Iraq and dangers of ongoing political tension, the shudder of bombs across the Green Zone would have served as a stark reminder.
Whilst the security situation in Iraq is a far cry from the all out chaos that ensued three years ago, the coordinated bombings in Iraq on Sunday, the deadliest attacks since April 2007, sent shockwaves across Iraq and a warning that stability in Iraq is as fragile as ever.
Iraqis are increasingly angry and frustrated and unless a draft election law can be passed this week, the delay to the milestone national elections in January 2010 will become unavoidable.
Election law stalemate
The Iraqi parliament has already missed the deadline of October 15th 2009 for the passing of the important election law.
Once again the largest stumbling block was how to deal with voting in the hotly disputed city of Kirkuk. The fact that the Kirkuk electoral issue has once again resurfaced, is testimony to failing of the ubiquitous “side-stepping” mentality of Baghdad on key issues.
Fundamental issues such as the holding of elections in Kirkuk simply can not be sidelined indefinitely. There are calls once more to introduce a special election status for Kirkuk with Arabs and Turkmen groups keen on the idea of a predefined split of power amongst the three major groups.
Kurds have rejected any calls to delay voting in Kirkuk or introduce any special dispensation for the province at this stage. Reluctance to conduct elections in Kirkuk is greatly mirrored in the anxiety of Baghdad over the implementation of the much delayed article 140. Arguably Baghdad foot-dragging has been designed to ensure that subsequent provincial or national polls do not serve as a de-facto referendum on the future of Kirkuk, as tensions have risen rapidly with the Kurdish administration in recent months.
The other key issue has been the debate on whether voting should be based on an open voting list or a closed list as in previous elections. Ultimately it is better to have delayed but credible elections across the whole of Iraq, including Kirkuk on more reflective and transparent open party listing system, then rush through a piecemeal election law that may satisfy US withdrawal targets but may hinder Iraq in the long-term.
There were some indications this week that progress was made on resolving key differences on the election law. However, another snag dampened hopes as disputes arose on voter registration in Kirkuk. Arabs favoured using a voting listing from 2004 whilst Kurds favoured UN voter records list from 2009.
Difficulties in agreeing an election law were hardly helped with some calls for the replacement of the head of the Iraqi High Election Commission (IHEC) on claims of facilitating fraud at the last election. Any wholesale changes at this stage on the leadership of the IHEC would almost certainly see a postponement of elections.
US troop withdrawal
Whilst the US withdrawal timetable was designed to be firm and unambiguous, a term that many Arabs insisted on before signing the SOFA agreement, any delay in national elections next year will almost certainly derail US hopes and expectations and their intentions to accelerate troop withdrawal in the lead-up to the targeted withdrawal of combat troops by August 2010.
For a US, now seemingly sidetracked on Afghanistan, the tying of the Iraqi political noose around the White House is nothing new. Back in 2007, the same feuding politicians in Baghdad were tasked with achieving stringent “milestones” that was hoped to signal the US exit strategy. In reality, many of the milestones almost three years later still have not been achieved today.
The aim of the US surge was not necessarily just to tackle the every growing menace of insurgents and al-Qaeda. It was designed to pin down the terrorist “monster” long enough so that Iraqis could reach the aforementioned millstones and thus diminish public support for radicalism.
It is perhaps unsurprising that bombing patterns have coincided with periods of political wrangling and instability. Recent bombings are designed to derail the political process and undermine the Shiite dominated government.
Whilst previously bombings were aimed at more open public spaces, targeting of government buildings have becoming more of a recurring theme in recent times. Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, who fared well at the recent provincial elections, has been credited with bringing security to Iraq. Easing of traffic restriction around danger hotspots of Baghdad were designed as a symbol of progress. However, for insurgents and foes alike, there is no better way to break the government grip and discredit their gains than to reintroduce fear and violence.
As the recent deadly bombing and tensions in parliament demonstrated, while security and general atmosphere is much more positive than 2007, it is also glaringly reversible. Until gains have been solidified in terms of the resolution of Kirkuk and disputed territories, the onset of a national hydrocarbon law and the appeasing of the disenfranchised Sunni minority with a sufficient piece of the Iraqi cake, chaos can easily return if not at a greater pace.
The increasing spate of deadly bombings, pose real questions on the capability and integrity of the Iraqi army, especially as they increasingly take on direct responsibility of their countries security.
It is short-sighted for the US to pressurise Iraqis into political progress so that they can execute their elusive exit strategy. In practice, no short-term gains in Iraq will ever truly act as a gauge to determine its long-term health.
America must be prepared for the aftermath of any Iraqi fallout in the long-term.
Appeasing Sunni sentiments
While the Sunni-fuelled insurgency has died down a great deal, owed in large to Sunni Awakening Councils, and general Sunni participation in the government and the democratic process has increased, the position of the Sunni population is still very much tentative.
Sunni’s may turn out in high numbers in January but will certainly be expecting a greater role in Parliament as well as within the security forces.
The problem with Iraq, with three distinct components, is that demands will not always be proportional to the voter weighting come January. Sunni’s may form a minority in comparison to their Shiite counterparts but will still expect to form a key part of the Iraqi horizon.
Whilst recent bombings have not provoked sectarian violence, especially from mainly Shiite targets, and the sides appear to be keen on battling out at the polls for the time been, this could easily change.
Iraqi provincial election results suggested a swaying of Iraqi sentiment from sectarianism. Iraqis fed up with years of violence, high unemployment and lack of public services, have gradually shifted from hard-line allegiances.
However, more disappointment with wrangling politicians or any significant fall out in the aftermath of the national elections may yet prove that the Iraqi house, with the absence of significant foundation, may well wilt under the smallest of storms.