Next big test for Iraq: January election

Everything up to this point has been 'concessional, interim, or bridging,' Iraq's foreign minister told the Monitor, calling the vote the most important in Iraq's history.

As the American troop presence recedes, Iraq is entering a new and critical political phase, according to top Iraqi officials.

Attention here is now shifting to national elections expected in January. The elections are seen as the best hope for addressing the grievances of Iraqi factions that feel they've been left out of a political system created by the US and dominated since 2003 by a Shiite-led government.

"The next election will be the most crucial in the history of Iraq in my view," says Iraq's Foreign Minister Hoyshar Zebari in an interview. "Now the picture is much clearer – neither one sect can rule by itself or one ethnic group or national group can run this country – this is a cardinal rule that everyone has come to accept."

Vice President Joe Biden's arrival in Iraq Thursday – and his new assignment as President Obama's point man – is a recognition of this new phase on the part of the United States.

Mr. Zebari warns though that the Iraqi election is also seen as crucial to Iraq's neighbors, which Iraqi and US officials accuse of interfering in Iraq's internal affairs.

"Everything we've done so far since 2003 up to this government has been concessional, interim, or bridging; responding to domestic agendas of other countries.... This one after the security situation calmed down a little bit should produce a more stable representative government and pin down our constititution, our institutions as a normal country."

As part of that normalization, 40 countries have now established diplomatic missions in Iraq. Others are waiting for security to improve further.

Iraqi officials generally see the June 30 withdrawal from the cities as an important confirmation to the Iraqi people that their country is on its way to becoming fully sovereign with the planned withdrawal of all US forces in 2011.

"This is the starting line for that process a tangible visible evidence that it is working," says Zebari.

"It shows Iraqis that the restoration of sovereignty is real and it shows Americans also that Iraqis are stepping up to the challenge," says Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salah in an interview. He says the next political step is for Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki to make good on promises of powersharing extracted by the Iraqi parliament in exchange for passing the then-controversial security agreement that will leave US troops in Iraq for another two years.

"I think the political parties are beginning more engaged and even Prime Minister Malaki is going back to that paper and saying let's see what one can do – it's about power sharing, more inclusivity, making sure the security services are more national and more neutral," says Dr. Salah.

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