- The Washington Times - Monday, April 28, 2014

Amid increasing violence by a resurgent al Qaeda, Iraqis will vote this week in the first parliamentary elections since the departure of U.S. troops in 2011 as the country edges closer to outright sectarian warfare and the government moves closer to Iran.

On Monday, militants thought to be Sunnis attacked polling stations across Iraq, where 22 million people have registered to vote. At least 46 people were killed in the attacks, the deadliest of which was a suicide bombing in a Kurdish town northeast of Baghdad and close to the Iranian border.

Army and police personnel cast ballots Monday, two days earlier than the civilian population.

More than 9,000 candidates are vying for 328 seats in Wednesday’s parliamentary elections. Despite a surge in violence throughout Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law slate of candidates is expected to win a majority of the seats, propelling him to a third, four-year term in office.

But an outright majority is not expected, and Mr. al-Maliki likely will have to form a government with coalition partners.

“A lot has been attached to these elections for the past couple of years because Iraq’s politics have been witnessing a serious political gridlock,” said Sarhang Hamasaeed, a senior program officer for the Middle East and North Africa programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace. “The hope is that these elections will bring new opportunities for the different political parties to work together and change the political dynamics in ways that will help the country go in a different direction.”

Forming a government is likely to be a protracted process resulting in a summer of political uncertainty.

Michael O’Hanlon, a researcher with the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence at the Brookings Institution, is pessimistic about the prospects for change.

“A Maliki re-election is likely, and any repair of the ethnic tensions that have resurfaced over the past one to two years in force is unlikely,” said Mr. O’Hanlon. “I don’t find the elections all that uplifting, either in what the process itself is generating or in the probable outcome.”

Critics accuse Mr. al-Maliki of monopolizing power and alienating the minority Kurdish and Sunni communities. The prime minister says he has never overstepped the constitution.

Spurred in part by critics’ claims that Mr. al-Maliki, a Shiite, is transforming himself into a strongman, the Obama administration pressured the prime minister to hold elections on time. The issue was high on the agenda when Mr. al-Maliki visited Washington in November.

Although the U.S. provides military support to Iraq, Washington’s influence in Baghdad is waning as Mr. al-Maliki develops close ties with Iran.

Mr. al-Maliki’s main Shiite rivals are Al-Muwatin, headed by the powerful cleric Ammar al-Hakim of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and Al-Ahrar, which is stocked with followers of the firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Like the Shiites, the minority Sunnis and Kurds also have not been able to field unified slates.

The three main Sunni slates — Mutahidoun, Al-Arabiya and Wataniya — are led by parliament Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq and former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, respectively.

The main Kurdish slate is made up of the two major parties — the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, led by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, led by Masoud Barzani, president of the self-ruled northern Kurdish region.

The fragmented slates reflect the heightened ethnic and sectarian tensions in the country. Conflict between Shiite and Sunni Muslims has ignited a ferocious cycle of violence. Iraq is experiencing its worst bloodshed since the height of the sectarian conflict that nearly tore the country apart from 2006 to 2008.

The United Nations says at least 7,818 civilians and 1,050 members of the Iraqi security forces were killed in attacks across Iraq in 2013.

President Obama pulled U.S. troops out of Iraq in December 2011 after the al-Maliki government refused to grant them immunity from prosecution under Iraqi law.

Campaign posters emblazoned across Baghdad promise a better future, but many residents are skeptical.

“It is only now that it is election season that we hear from politicians,” Zeid Ibrahim Ahmed, a 47-year-old Sunni barber from Baghdad’s mostly Sunni Azamiyah neighborhood, told The Associated Press. “But for four years they failed to do anything useful. The only change we might see in Iraq after the election is that we will move from bad to worse.”

“Security is worsening every day in this city,” he said.

The violence in Iraq is fueled in part by the al-Maliki government’s policies, political rivalries and the civil war raging across the border in Syria.

Sunni militants linked to al Qaeda in Iraq have rebranded themselves as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and control parts of the western province of Anbar, including pockets of the provincial capital, Ramadi, and nearly all of the nearby city of Fallujah.

While the militants have tried to weaken Mr. al-Maliki, the prime minister has presented himself as a strong leader who is taking on al Qaeda.

A decision by the extremist Shiite group Asaib Ahl al-Haq, or “the League of the Righteous,” to participate in the election has further fueled the bloodshed. On Friday, suicide bombers attacked the group’s rally of some 10,000 supporters in Baghdad, killing at least 33 people. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria said its suicide bombers carried out the attack.

Asaib Ahl al-Haq is led by Qais al-Khazali, a former lieutenant to Mr. al-Sadr, the anti-U.S. Shiite cleric. Mr. al-Khazali, who had been blamed for planning a series of attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq, was held by the U.S. military in Iraq from 2007 to 2010.

Sectarian divisions in Iraq have been further exacerbated by the civil war in Syria. Shiite militiamen are streaming across Iraq’s borders to support Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime in a war against rebels that is in its fourth year. Mr. Assad is an Allawite, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Sunnis in Iraq support the various Syrian rebel groups.

Iraq’s violence is expected to suppress Sunni turnout on election day. Voting will not take place in parts of the Sunni-dominated Anbar province, including Fallujah and parts of Ramadi, where Iraqi forces are fighting Sunni militants.

About 370,000 people have been displaced by the fighting, according to the Iraqi government. U.N. polling stations have been set up throughout the country for these internally displaced people.

“It is not in the interests of [the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria] for the Sunnis to have a representative government and take part in the elections,” said Mr. Hamasaeed. “The more the Sunni population mends its relationship with the government, the less ground there will be for [the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria] to flourish.”

• Ashish Kumar Sen can be reached at asen@washingtontimes.com.

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