- The Washington Times - Friday, March 5, 2010

Iraq faces the prospect of a protracted battle to form a new government after Sunday elections, including possible violence, that could complicate President Obama’s plans to pull out nearly half the U.S. troops there by the end of August, diplomats and analysts say.

An early round of voting Thursday was marred by three explosions that killed more than a dozen people, even as Iraqi security forces were out in full force trying to protect polling stations.

“Terrorists wanted to hamper the elections; thus, they started to blow themselves up in the streets,” Deputy Interior Minister Ayden Khalid Qader told reporters in Baghdad.

Observers of Iraqi politics say they have no idea who will win the elections and what kind of government will emerge from the results. The only certainty, they say, is that the voting will be highly contested, with about 6,200 candidates running for 325 seats in parliament.

“Nobody knows who’s going to win,” said Brett McGurk, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a National Security Council official in the George W. Bush White House. “We are not going to know really what’s happened until probably three weeks or so after the elections, when the votes are certified.”

Those results, however, will simply “set up a protracted negotiation that’s going to take not weeks, but months - and perhaps many months,” Mr. McGurk said.

Meghan O’Sullivan, a former White House colleague of Mr. McGurk’s and now a professor at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, said it is “possible that on Sunday one party will emerge with a significantly larger bloc of votes than the others,” but that is “extremely unlikely.”

While political alliances continue to shift, six main coalitions are vying for support from the 19 million registered voters: the Iraqi National Alliance, which includes major Shiite parties; the State of Law coalition, led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, also a Shiite but running as a secular and nationalist figure; the Iraqi National Movement, an alliance of secular Shiite parties and nationalist Sunnis; the Kurdistan Alliance and the competing Kurdish party Change List; and the Unity of Iraq Coalition, with more than 40 entities.

“The situation is extremely confusing concerning the party alliances,” said Marina Ottaway, director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “It is extremely likely that they will break up and reconfigure after the elections.”

Ms. O’Sullivan said that, although “you don’t have parties that are exclusively sectarian in nature,” as was the case in the 2005 elections, the likely “vacuum” the protracted government negotiations will create could invite violence.

“If you don’t have a government until late spring or early summer,” that could affect the pullout of U.S. troops, she said.

Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said the level of about 96,000 troops will hold “through the elections and in the weeks following, so that we can be on hand to assist in providing for a security environment conducive for a peaceful transfer of power.”

“But once that has been established, we are prepared to draw down dramatically to get to the president’s goal of 50,000 U.S. forces on the ground come Sept. 1,” Mr. Morrell said Wednesday.

Iraqi security forces “have the lead in providing security” during the elections, and “all indications are that they are more than prepared to pull it off,” Mr. Morrell said.

Under the U.S.-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement, which the Bush administration negotiated in 2008, all combat forces must withdraw by the end of June and all troops must leave by the end of 2011.

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