Attacks kill 38 on polling day in Iraq

Attacks on election day kill 38 in Iraq. Renewed peace effort for Israel and Palestine. US-South Korean military drills spark North Korean anger. Reprisal attacks leave at least 100 dead in Nigeria. Explosion in Lahore kills 11. All this as more, in today’s update.

Mortar and bomb attacks killed 38 people across Iraq as citizens turned out for parliamentary elections on Sunday. Sunni Islamist militants, part of an al-Qaida affiliated group, had warned Iraqis not to vote, pledging to disrupt elections and target voters. In Baghdad, 25 people were killed when a bomb destroyed a residential building, with further violence hitting cities across the country, including Mosul, Falluja, Baquba and Samarra.

The elections were supported by intense security operations, conducted by 500,000 Iraqi security personnel, thousands of troops, and the closure of the border with Iran. As a result, only two elections polls were closed for brief periods due to security risks.

Iraqis were voting for a new 325-seat parliamentary assembly, choosing from a ballot containing more than 6,200 candidates from 86 factions. Long queues were commonplace at many polling stations, despite the prospect of attacks, and people already queuing when the polls shut at 1700 were still allowed to cast their vote. Turnout has been estimated at 55-60%

The openSecurity verdict: These elections are critical for Iraq on many levels, and will shape its national and foreign policies and relations. The elections have been viewed as a test for the national reconciliation process ahead of plans for US military withdrawal. US President Barack Obama hailed the Iraqi elections as making it “clear that the future of Iraq belongs to the people of Iraq.” President Obama has reaffirmed his commitment to withdraw US combat troops from Iraq by August and other remaining forces by the end of next year.

At the national level, the elections were an important moment for the Sunni minority, which had largely boycotted the 2005 vote, leaving them on the fringes of Iraqi politics and fuelling the insurgency.  Queues were reported at many polling stations in Sunni areas of the country. However, many Sunnis are not optimistic about the outcome. As one Sunni voter stated; “they blamed us because we did not vote last time. I came with my wife today to vote although I am not enthusiastic, because I know there will be no change.” Analysts argue that current Prime Minister al-Maliki’s greatest challenge will be to bring the ‘embittered’ Sunni minority into his government and make them feel that they have a place in Iraqi politics and Iraq’s future.

Iyad Allawi, Maliki’s main rival and head of a secular coalition, has already criticised the elections, stating that many Kurds were excluded and emphasising the confusion at voting centres. Allawi’s secular coalition has focused on public exasperation with ongoing conflict, poor public services, and governmental corruption, with particular attention to drawing support from the Sunni minority sceptical of al-Maliki’s government.

Many analysts say that Prime Minister al-Maliki is likely to retain power as head of his Shia-led coalition. Al-Maliki is credited with the recent reduction in violence of recent years, with lower civilian and military casualties than periods of near civil war in 2007. The prime minister actively encouraged Iraqi voters to participate in the elections, emphasising that their participation was needed to boost democracy.

However, the outcome of the elections could take weeks to decide. It will take a minimum of three days to announce the results, and there are already signs that the results will be contested. Expatriate votes cast from Jordan and Syria could play a crucial and deciding role in election results, representing roughly ten seats. Expatriates in London were arrested after protesting against their alleged unfair exclusion from the electoral register.

Regardless, with the large number of candidates and factions, no bloc is expected to win a majority. It will take months to form a new government in these circumstances, the result of which may be a power vacuum and the disruption of government services that armed groups could exploit.

Despite such uncertainties, the elections in Iraq remain a significant achievement. As reported in an earlier security briefing, there are still many obstacles for the new government to overcome, particularly surrounding national security. However, high voter turnout and public support in the face of violence exemplify the change that has taken place in Iraq over the last few years and provide a strong basis to meet future challenges.

Renewed peace talks in sight between Israel and Palestine

A new round of indirect peace negotiations between leaders of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation and Israel are expected to be announced later this week. They will be the first attempt to reopen dialogue between the two nations since Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip from December 2008 through January 2009. The Israeli government has welcomed the renewed talks after their proposal won Arab support last week.

However, Palestinian leaders are sceptical of any positive outcome and have limited talks to an initial period of four months. Their precondition that Israel halt settlement building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem has not been met, making re-entrance into talks a ‘climb-down’ for Palestinian leaders. This move will likely receive sharp criticism from Hamas, the Palestinian opposition movement in control of the Gaza Strip.

The talks will be mediated by a US envoy, who will ‘shuttle’ between Israeli and Palestinian delegations. American Vice President Joe Biden will be traveling in the region this week in an attempt to build support for the revived talks. He will meet Israeli, Palestinian, Egyptian and Jordanian leaders as well as engage in ‘public diplomacy’, in an effort to reassure “anxious Israelis about Obama’s commitment to their security while explaining why they should be willing to make concessions for peacemaking.”

US-South Korean military drills spark renewed threats from North Korea

North Korean officials say they will strengthen their atomic arsenal after annual US-South Korea military drills took place this week, stating that it is no longer bound by the ceasefire that ended the Korean War in the 1950s. However, analysts say  that this is nothing more than ‘heated rhetoric’, and an unlikely indicator of any renewed threat to the region. North Korea typically denounces the annual drills as a lead up to invasion and nuclear war, despite decades without incident.

A senior diplomat from China stated last week that Beijing wanted stalled talks with North Korea to restart before July, with the aim of ending North Korea’s development of its nuclear armaments. Since its nuclear test in May 2009, North Korea has come under intense pressure to return to disarmament-for-aid talks. U.N. sanctions following the test have had a significant impact on North Korea’s unstable economy, while a poor currency move last year has triggered high inflation. The economic circumstances have recently sparked civil unrest  in the country.

Reprisal attacks in central Nigeria leave more than 100 dead

Nigerian security forces are on red alert following brutal attacks near the city of Jos over the weekend. More than 100 people are believed dead, with some estimate as high as 300. It appears that victims were drawn outside by gunshots, before their homes were set on fire and they were attacked with machetes.

The attacks appear to be reprisals following recent clashes between armed Christian and Muslim groups earlier this year. The city of Jos and its surrounding area, already under curfew following the earlier attacks, has become a battleground in a sectarian conflict between the country’s predominantly Christian south and Muslim north.

This comes at a time of political crisis in Nigeria, with the acting president, Vice President Jonathan, ruling in place of the gravely ill President Yar’Adua. Despite having sent troops to Jos following the January clashes, Jonathan’s authority remains uncertain.

Explosion in Pakistan targets Pakistani Federal Investigative Agency, killing eleven

Eleven people have died and at least sixty have been injured in a suicide attack in Lahore. The explosion targeted the Special Investigation Group, the anti-terrorist wing of the Pakistani Federal Investigative Agency. The two-storey building collapsed in the attack and a nearby religious school has been damaged. Among the dead and injured are passersby, including children on their way to school. The FIA offices have been targets of two other attacks in the last year.

At present, no organisation has claimed responsibility for the attack, though Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik has blamed the Pakistan Taliban on account of their past record. Pakistan has recently increased its operations against the Taliban, arresting many top officials, including Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s second most senior commander.