Iraq election stalemate could delay US troop withdrawal

Iraqi lawmakers are divided over legislation required to go ahead with elections scheduled for January. Drawdown of US troops in Iraq was set to speed up after the elections.

Thaier al-Sudani/Reuters
Iraqi Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani speaks during an event held in Baghdad to announce the formation of the "Iraq's Unity Alliance" ahead of the upcoming national election on Wednesday.

Once again the US finds itself hostage to Iraqi politics – this time as a result of a standoff among Iraqi political parties over an overdue election law.

Without the legislation, parliamentary elections set for next January could be put off – which in turn could stall US military plans to accelerate troop withdrawals once the election milestone is passed. The US has about 125,000 troops in Iraq, but President Obama wants the number to drop to 50,000 by August.

The situation, which caught Obama administration diplomats off guard as they have focused attention on Afghanistan and the electoral crisis there, is reminiscent of the stalemate the Bush administration faced in 2007 concerning a series of "benchmark" laws the US Congress sought in return for continuing support to Iraq.

At that time, US diplomats spoke of "two clocks" in the two capitals to explain the discrepancy between Washington's demand for quick political action and Baghdad's refusal to be rushed.

The two clocks are on display again, with US diplomats including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton imploring Iraqi leaders to pass an election law. For their part, some Iraqi politicians say it is Americans and not Iraqis who feel a need to hurry on legislation that cuts to the heart of Iraq's power struggles.

The election law should have been approved by Oct. 15 in order for elections scheduled for Jan. 16 to go forward, according to the Iraqi constitution.

Holding up passage of the law are two political issues that have the potential to remake Iraq – or tear it apart.

One concerns the ethnically-divided northern city of Kirkuk and how to apportion its national political representation between Kurds, who claim the oil-rich city as part of their region, and Arabs.

The other issue is about how to settle the debate between the traditional power brokers who want to continue with the system of political party lists used in the 2005 election, and newcomers who favor an open-list system allowing voters to choose individual candidates and not just a party.

On Wednesday night, a deadlocked Iraqi Parliament decided to turn the problem over to a special council of political leaders, and try again to pass a law next week.

As frustrating as the stalemate may be for the US, some Iraq specialists say it would be shortsighted for the Obama administration to press for passage of any election law just to keep to a troop withdrawal timetable.

"An attitude of, 'Let's just accept a closed list [system] and get this over with' could leave us with bigger problems down the road," says Wayne White, a former State Department Iraq policy expert. He says not opening up the Iraqi Parliament to the "fresh faces" many voters seem to want could perpetuate a corrupt and ineffective power structure that has hobbled Iraq and the US project there.

"The US has had it with tarnished elections," he says, pointing to Afghanistan's tainted presidential vote. "We should be pressuring for the open list."

The US is in good company supporting an open-list system since Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani spoke out last year in favor of the system, says Mr. White, now an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

But neither may be a match for Iraq's traditional political power brokers. "They're trying to run out the clock so there's no alternative but to fall back on the closed list," he says, "It's pretty shameful."

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