Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Iraq local elections successful but leaves Kirkuk question unanswered

With 90 percent of the vote counted, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is claiming victory in this weekend’s Iraqi local elections. 51 percent of the population voted in the ballot. Although official results won’t be released until Thursday and full results will take several weeks to process, preliminary results show that al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition has won significant victories in the two biggest cities Baghdad and Basra. The Times claims al-Maliki is “reaping the benefits of successful operations to combat Shia militias in Baghdad and the south.” However the Kurdish-dominated North is a different story with four of the country’s 18 provinces not taking part in the ballot.

Nevertheless, Lebanon’s Daily Star says the vote was a positive sign for Iraqi nationalism and a remarkable recovery from the full-scale civil war that existed barely two years ago. “The Iraqi people who went to the polls last week rejected the paradigm of ethnic and sectarian identity politics that was imposed on them by outsiders and put the interests of the nation above those of their various tribes and sects,” said the Star.

One notable casualty of the election is the extremist religious parties. The Pro-Iranian Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) did not win a single province. They lost their stronghold of Najaf to al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition and also lost significant support in the two big cities. In Baghdad in 2005 it won 54.9 percent of the vote; this time round it got just 5.4 percent. In Basra, it had 48.7 percent in 2005, now it won 11.6 percent. The US site Foreign Policy says ISCI’s links to Iran proved deeply unpopular and is now tarred as a religious party with a rural rump. “The big cities are voting for Iraqi nationalism and centralism,” it said.

The Sunni parties also did well in the election but remain highly fractured. In Anbar province Abu Risha's Awakening Council is hoping to form a Sunni coalition after taking 17 percent of the vote. But there are allegations of vote rigging and both Sunni and Shia groups have disputed the results. The Awakening Council claims they were ahead in the count until the late addition of an extra 100,000 ballot papers swung the results in favour of the Shia Islamic Party. The Islamic Party gained controlled of the local provincial council in 2005 when the Sunnis boycotted the election. They deny Sunni allegations of vote rigging this time round and have threatened court action.

But the troubles in Anbar are the exception to the peaceful rule in the 14 voting provinces. Nevertheless attention will eventually have to be paid to the four provinces that did not vote. Control of these provinces is disputed by the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government which wants to establish an autonomous Kurdish region. The most important of the four is Kirkuk, 250km north of the capital, which has 13 percent of the country’s oil reserves. Kirkuk was a former Kurdish stronghold which was emptied by Saddam in a bout of ethnic cleansing in the 1970s. They returned to the city after Saddam was deposed and are an increasingly strident lobby in the power-sharing council set up by the Americans in 2003.

Now the Kurds want the city recognised as part of Kurdistan and vetoed a 2008 Baghdad decision for continued power sharing in the city. As a result Iraq’s election law was delayed putting the whole provincial election process in jeopardy. After months of negotiation, the parliament passed the law establishing voting quotas in September 2008, but only by setting aside the thorny issue of Kirkuk, which was excluded from the vote. The International Crisis Group has long criticised the Bush administration ‘bystander’ approach to the disputed city and recommends the international community should encourage the Kurds to embrace “peace and stability in a shared Kirkuk”.

The new US administration is also quickly finding out how difficult a problem Kirkuk could be to resolve. Obama sent Joe Biden to the city in mid January on a fact-finding mission. There he attended meetings with al-Maliki’s government and the Kurdish administration. According to one insider, Biden warned both parties that the US would withdraw “billions of dollars” from Iraq in order to address the global financial meltdown and insisted both sides solve their disputes through concessions and compromise. Despite the threats both sides were unmoved. The Kurds repeated their demands that Kirkuk be incorporated into their self-ruled region, while Baghdad insisted the city remain under central government control. While it remains unresolved, the Kirkuk issue may yet be Obama’s biggest difficulty in fully removing US military involvement from Iraq.

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