(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
March 14, 2010
Iraq elections: US worried
THE final results of the parliamentary elections in Iraq held in the first week of March are only expected to be announced later in the month. A good showing by those parties advocating an immediate end to the American occupation of Iraq would constitute a serious political and military setback for the Obama administration. Within Iraq, a lot of political heat and sectarian tensions have been generated in the run-up to the election. On election day, Baghdad and other cities were rocked by mortar attacks and suicide bombs. The government has said that there was a 62 per cent turn out for the election but many political parties have alleged widespread ballot stuffing.
The incumbent Prime Minister, Nouri al Maliki, is fighting to stave off a determined challenge from his rivals among the different Shia supported parties. The political grouping led by the radical anti-American cleric, Moqtada al Sadr is seen to be emerging as a major contender. Sadr wants the US occupation forces to quit the country immediately, a view shared by the majority of Iraqis. Washington however seems to be having long term plans in Iraq. The US is constructing its biggest embassy in Baghdad and has built big military bases in preparation for a long haul in the regions.
Recent terror attacks in Baghdad and other cities have dented Maliki’s reputation. The civic infrastructure in Baghdad and other major cities have not improved. Massive power cuts and water shortages are still the order of the day. Allegations of corruption at the top levels of government have also queered the pitch for the State of Law bloc led by Maliki. Leading Shia theologians linked to the Marjaiya (the leading Shia spiritual authority) Ayatollah Bashir al Najafi, a Marjaiya member, accused the Malliki government of nepotism and corruption. He went to the extent of accusing the executive authority of betraying the nation and fostering sectarianism.
Maliki’s main rival in the elections---the Iraqi National Alliance consisting of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) and the Sadrists, seem to have the implicit backing of the influential Shiite clerical establishment. The pre-eminent Iraqi Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali Sistani has however made a belated appeal to Marjaiya to maintain neutrality in the election campaign. In the last general elections, the Marjaiya had publicly supported the United Iraqi Alliance of which Maliki was part of. The Alliance has since fractured with Maliki opting for new political partners.
The third main contender for power is the Iraq National Movement under the leadership of another former interim Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi. The National Movement is a coalition of mainly secular Shia and Sunni parties. Alawi, a former Baathist was a known CIA asset during his days in exile. The National Movement is trying to position itself as a joint Shia-Sunni secular alternative to the two Shiite fronts which have good relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Washington’s preference is for Allawi but opinion polls indicate that the alliance led by him will come third with around 20 per cent of the vote.
The Obama administration is afraid about the consequences of the National Alliance getting the largest number of seats in the 325 member parliament. The SIIC is known to be closest to Iran. A worse case scenario for Washington is that of the Sadrists emerging with the largest number of seats in parliament and securing the top job of prime minister. American officials are already alleging that Teheran is throwing its full weight behind the Sadrists. Salah al Obeidi, the chief spokesman of the Sadrists said recently that the National Alliance will get seventy to eighty seats in the new parliament. He said that out of this the Sadrists were optimistic of getting around 35 seats.
The Sadrists have been doing a lot of grass roots social and developmental work in their areas of influence in the big cities. The American “military surge” had forced the Sadrist militia to keep a low profile. Sadr himself had left for Iran in 2007 and is now positioning himself as a mainstream politician. His party made a respectable showing in the provincial elections last year. The Obama administration is trying its best to see that the Sadrists are kept out of government. They are hoping that Iraq’s Kurdish and Sunni minorities will get enough seats to keep the Sadrists out of the corridors of power.
The Sadrists and SIRI on their
part have been
suggesting that they would go to the extent of supporting outside
for the prime minster’s job in order to prevent Maliki from retaining
ministership. Among the names being mentioned in this context are those
Ahmad Chalabi and the former prime minster, Ibrahim al-Jaafari.
seemed to be
Top Sunni politicians were barred from running in the March 7 elections on the grounds that they were pro-Baathists. In all 500 candidates running for elections were banned as part of the de-Baathification campaign sponsored by the Maliki government. Saleh al Mutlaq, a prominent Sunni parliamentarian and leader of the National Dialogue Party, who was among those banned, has called upon his followers to boycott the elections. During the two year stewardship of the Iraqi government under Jaafari who had preceded Maliki, the Sunni population bore the brunt of the sectarian violence which claimed tens of thousands of lives and turned millions of Iraqis into refugees.
Seven years after the American occupation, many of the ground realities have changed in Iraq. Much of the Sunni resistance have been either cajoled or coerced into cooperating with the American military under the leadership of General David Petraeus. Washington is now exerting pressure on the Maliki government to re-integrate former Baathist officials and military men back into the system. The Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadenijad speaking on the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in February accused the Obama administration of interfering in the Iraqi election process by trying to get the former Baathists into government. A leading Sunni Party, the Iraqi Islamic Party on the other hand blamed Washington for helping turn their country into “an open theatre for regional and international interference”.
The American ambassador to Iraq, Christopher Hill, has meanwhile accused Teheran of trying to undercut US efforts at stabilising Iraq before the withdrawal of American troops scheduled to start later in the year. Iran he said in a speech delivered to Washington’s United States Institute of Peace, is showing a “malevolent face” and is trying to “frustrate US and Iraqi common goals”. There is no doubt that the US is worried about the growing Iranian influence in Iraq. Almost all the Iraqi Shiite parties are indebted in one way or the other to Iran. Most of their leaders, including Jaafari and Maliki, have spent long years in exile there. Only the former Baathists and a section of the Kurds in Iraq are hostile towards Iran. The umbrella resistance group---the Islamic State of Iraq, which is fighting the US occupation forces has issued a statement condemning the elections saying that it would only consolidate power in the hands of Shiites beholden to Iran. The al Qaeda in Iraq is part of the group. However, unlike in the 2005 elections, this time the Sunni populations seem to have come out in force to cast their votes.
Ambassador Hill had in his speech had warned the Iraqi Shia leaders to not bank on Iranian support. He said that “one of the great calling cards we have in Iraq is that we can introduce Iraq to the international community. At present Iran can introduce Iraq to North Korea, and not much more”. The Iraqi National Alliance termed the recent statements of Hill and American military officials as “regrettable”. The Alliance said that the American inspired move to rehabilitate the Baathists “was a coup against the political process”. Given the popular outcry among the Shias who constitute more than 60 per cent of the electorate, the Iraqi prime minister also had to weigh in on the subject. Maliki warned “foreigners” not to interfere in the country’s elections. He also went on record stating that he will not allow Ambassador Hill “to go beyond his diplomatic mission”.
A victory for parties viewed in Washington as pro-Iranian, will no doubt be a set back for the proposed Arab front the Obama administration is trying to cobble up against Teheran. President Obama was hoping to withdraw the bulk of American troops after ensuring that a pliant government is in place in Baghdad after the March elections. Obama had told US soldiers in February, 2009 that by August 31, 2010, the US “combat mission in Iraq will end”.
Already there are calls from influential American think tanks and newspapers that the Obama administration should abandon its commitment to pull out troops from Iraq and instead maintain a strong military presence in the country for the foreseeable future. The American media is full of predictions of another cycle of bloody sectarian war breaking out after the March elections. On February 22, General Ray Odierno, the top US commander in Iraq announced that the US is making contingency plans to delay the withdrawal of all combat troops from Iraq in case of political instability after the elections.