An Election Law Agreement in Iraq

Last night, Iraqi leaders reached an agreement on an election law governing the upcoming national elections, and the law was passed by Iraq’s parliament.  The passage of the law had been delayed for months, largely due to concerns about voter registration in Kirkuk, an oil-rich region populated by three different ethnic groups (Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens) that want control over the area’s resources; another sticking point was that Sunni Muslims wanted more representation for Iraqis living abroad, most of whom are Sunni.  An earlier agreement made in early Nov. was vetoed by Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, a Sunni who has the constitutional power to veto legislation along with Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi, a Shiite Muslim, and President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd; the three offices were given veto authority in an effort to prevent any one ethnic or sectarian group from feeling politically marginalized.

Had an agreement not been reached it would have severely disrupted the planned withdrawal of American troops from Iraq.  The US is scheduled to reduce its troop presence to 50,000 by August, but a major drawdown will not begin until after the elections are held in order to preserve relative stability during the voting process.  The election, which was supposed to be held in the middle of January, will take place in late February at the earliest because Iraqi officials need time to prepare for it; the delay may make it difficult for the US to meet the August withdrawal date, but the postponement could have been much longer if Iraqi leaders had been unable to secure a deal.  The American pullout will reduce the strain on the nation’s military and make it easier for the US to sustain an upcoming troop surge in Afghanistan.

Iraq has recently been overshadowed by the war in Afghanistan in terms of media focus.  But the situation there remains precarious as a political agreement over the sharing of oil revenues remains elusive and fears of a renewal of sectarian conflict persist.  Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki warned that the delay over the election law could lead to an increase in violence from disaffected groups. 

It is unclear how the Obama administration would respond if widespread fighting broke out again in Iraq and the country was on the brink of descending into chaos.  President Obama promised to end the American troop presence in Iraq, and he is preoccupied with Afghanistan and domestic issues, but an unstable Iraq would be detrimental to US interests in the region and the administration might feel compelled to intervene to prevent a state of anarchy from developing.

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