Local polls pose challenge for Iraq after US withdrawal

An Iraqi walks past campaign billboards in Baghdad Not all of Iraq's 18 provinces will go to the polls on 20 April

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Voters in Iraq are going to the polls in provincial elections on 20 April, 10 years after the fall of Saddam Hussein. The BBC's Jim Muir examines the deeply fragmented political landscape and significance of the vote after the withdrawal of US troops in 2011.

Saturday's provincial elections in Iraq are being watched closely for two reasons.

They will be the first test of the country's ability to carry out major polls - the first since general elections in 2010 - without the presence of US forces, who completed their withdrawal at the end of 2011.

They will also provide an important test of the electoral strength of incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and also of the man whose Iraqiyya coalition came out narrowly ahead in the last general elections but who was outmanoeuvred in the government formation process, Ayyad Allawi.

On the security front, there is little doubt that the polling will go ahead despite the fact that insurgent attacks in the run-up to these elections have been more intense than in the last provincial elections in 2009.

Iraqi policeman inspects burnt out cars in aftermath of car bomb attack in Habibiya neighborhood of eastern Baghdad, Iraq. Security is still a key issue with 4,573 Iraqis killed in insurgent attacks in 2012

On that occasion, eight election candidates were killed during the campaign.

This time, the number of candidates killed reached 14 two days before polling, and there were numerous failed attempts on others.

It came as an unneeded reminder that despite the high hopes that prevailed in 2009, the security situation has never really stabilised and shows recent signs of deteriorating further.

According to Iraq Body Count, which tracks casualties and provides at least an indicator of trends, the number of people killed in 2012 (4,573) was only slightly below the 5,102 killed in 2009.

Most casualty estimates indicate an upward trend for the first months of this year, reaching levels almost exactly the same as those in 2009.

The violence is largely blamed on Sunni-based, al-Qaeda-linked militants escalating provocative bomb attacks in Shiite-majority areas and apparently trying to re-create the sectarian havoc of 2006-7.

Security will obviously be tight as in past polls, when the actual day of voting has often been largely untroubled however bad the violence during the run-up.

But one question this time is whether factions and candidates who fare badly at the ballot box will accept the result as free and fair, as they generally did when the Americans and other coalition forces were around in the background.

Political fragmentation

With Prime Minister Maliki widely accused by his many political opponents of harbouring dictatorial tendencies and clinging desperately to power, it would not be surprising if there are allegations of irregularities.

His prospects for success in these polls are likely to be enhanced by the acute political fragmentation that has set in since the 2009 provincial polls which set the scene for the 2010 general elections.

That fragmentation was underlined by the fact that six out of the country's 18 provinces are not voting on Saturday.

The three provinces of autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan in the north are on a different schedule, indicating how much the Kurds are going their own way.

Differences over the disputed oil-rich Kirkuk province have still not been settled, so it too has had to be left out.

Two mainly Sunni provinces, al-Anbar and Nineveh (Mosul), have also been controversially excluded for the time being, on the grounds that continuing anti-government disturbances and demonstrations there have made polling too unsafe. The postponement prompted Mr Maliki's many detractors to accuse him of manipulation for his own electoral benefit.

The skills Mr Maliki displayed in outmanoeuvring Mr Allawi in the 2010 struggle for the prime ministerial job have certainly stood him in good stead in turning to his advantage the fragmentation afflicting both the Sunni and Shia political camps.

At one stage recently, he appeared to have little visible means of political support, with 17 government ministers boycotting sessions of the supposedly national unity government.

He had alienated the bulk of the Sunnis, and even factions from his own Shia community, including ministers loyal to the militant cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who along with the Kurds and others, had tried to bring the prime minister down.

But a variety of political sources say Iraq's influential neighbour Iran insisted that Mr Maliki must not be overthrown and should be allowed to see out his term of office until the general elections next year.

Competing factions

The Sadrists have since returned to the government fold.

Tareq al-Hashemi Sunni Vice-President Tariq al-Hashemi is facing terrorism charges

They will be competing with Mr Maliki's State of Law coalition - which campaigns under the name Construction and Resolve - in the Shia-majority areas of southern Iraq and in mixed areas such as Baghdad.

So too will other Shia factions, including the once-powerful Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) led by Ammar al-Hakim.

In the first post-Saddam elections in 2005 all these Shia groups contested elections in one broad coalition, now long fragmented.

But Mr Maliki has succeeded in luring to his side from rival Shia factions splinter groups once regarded as militant or even "terrorist", such as the Asaib Ahl al-Haqq, which split from the Sadrists, and the Badr Organisation, which broke off from ISCI.

He has also capitalised on divisions within the Sunni arena, which has fragmented in a way that greatly disserves his main rival, Ayyad Allawi.

In the 2010 general elections, Mr Allawi's Iraqiyya coalition profited heavily from alliance with most of the key Sunni groups and regional leaders.

Although he is himself a secular Shia, Mr Allawi's front won the bulk of the Sunni vote.

But that unity is now fractured. The most senior Sunni politician, Vice-President Tariq al-Hashemi, is on the run in exile, with a death sentence on terrorism charges hanging over his head.

Other powerful Sunni figures such as parliament Speaker Usama al-Nujaifi, who dominates Mosul in the north, are running on their own.

One of them, Saleh al-Mutlak, has been persuaded to throw in his lot with Mr Maliki.

All of this, plus the exclusion of the two Sunni-majority provinces, the emergence of new tribal leaderships, and the resurgence of Sunni militants and even Baathists, bodes ill for the electoral prospects of Mr Allawi's Iraqiyya coalition.

Prospects of a third term

If Mr Maliki's team does emerge with a strong showing, that would normally be expected to be carried through in the general elections next year.

Nouri al-Maliki Nouri al-Maliki has been accused of attempting to monopolise power

But there is strong resistance among his many political opponents to his being given a third term of office, given accusations that he has monopolised power in a way well out of line with the partnership agreement which underpinned his government's formation.

In addition to holding the powers of prime minister, he has also occupied the defence and interior ministries, giving himself a virtual monopoly of control over security.

While his opponents have accused him of going it alone on the path of dictatorship, Mr Maliki himself is hoping for majority control of provincial councils on the grounds that divisions have made it impossible to achieve progress on issues like utilities and employment projects.

Such practical failures are among many reasons why a lot of Iraqis are far less optimistic about the future now than they were four years ago.

Political fragmentation and uncertainty, unemployment, lack of security, and corruption on a massive scale, are among the elements often cited by dissatisfied Iraqis.

The struggle over Mr Maliki's being granted a third term of office is currently focused on measures taken by parliament to restrict prime ministers to two terms. Mr Maliki is planning to challenge the move in court.

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