Violence and uncertainty underscore Iraqi elections

Insurgents strike polling stations as Iraq votes for its new government. Turkey withdraws its ambassador to the US in the wake of a House committee vote condemning the Armenian genocide. The British PM defends the Iraq war. Clashes erupt at the al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. All this and more, in today’s security update.
Oliver Scanlan
5 March 2010

On Thursday, at least fourteen people were killed and 57 injured when polling stations in Iraq were assaulted by insurgents. There were five separate incidents; a mortar attack hit a busy market in the north-west of the capital, followed by two suicide bombings that struck the western Mansour district and central Baghdad. On the same day, there were attacks in Mosul and Diyala. The main vote is scheduled to take place on Sunday; Thursday’s polls were to allow government employees, as well as prisoners and the sick to vote.

The attacks came one day after it was reported that Shi’ia religious leaders were using Friday prayers as an opportunity to campaign on behalf of competing political parties. Ammar Hakim, the leader of the National Iraqi Alliance, told tens of thousands of supporters at one service that it was their religious duty to vote. Later in the day it was reported that thousands of supporters of the Shi’ia cleric Moqtada al Sadr had flooded the streets in Baghdad’s Sadr City.

Also on Friday, Iraqi expatriate communities began to vote across the world. The expatriate vote is scheduled to take place between Friday and Sunday. The largest expatriate community is in Syria, the vast majority of which are refugees who fled Iraq because of the violence that flared up in the wake of the 2003 invasion. The UN refugee agency estimates that there are 4.2 million of such refugees.

The openSecurity update: Following Wednesday’s violence, which saw at least 30 people killed after three suicide attacks in Baquba, it is clear that the willingness and capacity of Sunni insurgent groups to disrupt Sunday’s elections is undiminished. However, it is a mistake to view the potential outcome of the elections in solely sectarian terms. Of far greater import are the implications for the future of the Byzantine political arrangements that predominate within the majority Shi’ia community.

In contrast to the 2005 general election, which saw Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki’s Dawa party stand as part of the National Iraqi Alliance coalition, Dawa is now running separately, against the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and the Sadr movement. Hakim’s comment during Friday prayers regarding how Iraq did not need ‘a strong man’ was a clear reference to Maliki. Dawa’s own election success has been based on a strong, nationalist platform and apparently only acquiesced to the black listing of Sunni candidates earlier in the year, referred to by one commentator as the ‘Baathists under the bed furore’, to keep its Shi’ia base on side.

The interests of external actors in this election are likely to be overestimated. Iran’s interest is represented equally by SIIC, the Badr organisation and, to a lesser extent, Moqtada al Sadr’s political movement. The US is unflinching in its commitment to withdraw US combat forces later this year, and will likely accept any variant of a Shi’ia / Kurdish coalition that is the almost certain outcome of any election. The key issue will continue to be security. Maliki’s government claims credit for a dramatic reduction in violence; its diplomacy with Moqtada al Sadr’s Mehdi army being a key factor in this success. But violence will need to be reduced further for the 4.2 million strong diaspora of Iraqi refugees, including a large number of much needed medical specialists, to be encouraged to return.

Turkey withdraws US ambassador over Armenian genocide vote

Namik Tan, Turkey’s ambassador to the United States, has been recalled to Ankara for consultations in the wake of the Congress House Committee on Foreign Affairs passing a non-binding resolution condemning the Armenian genocide. Thursday’s vote was close, passing by 23 to 22. The office of the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has issued a protest, saying that the bill condemned Turkey for a crime it did not commit.

US-Turkey relations are increasingly precarious. In addition to the fallout from the war in Iraq, rising popular anti-Americanism and the evaporation of the common  Soviet threat, the national insult that many Turks will consider the US to have dealt may be grounds for divorce. An earlier vote on the same issue, passed by a wider margin in 2007, was blocked by the Bush administration to ensure Turkey’s support in Iraq. A likely casualty of the bill will be a protocol between Turley and Armenia to agree on open borders and a commission to investigate the killing of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians during and after the first world war .

British PM defends Iraq invasion  

Speaking to the Chilcot Inquiry, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown defended the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, describing it as the ‘right decision made for the right reasons’. However, he couched his defence in references to Saddam Hussein’s record of breaching UN resolutions, rather than in the WMD threat highlighted by the British government at the time to justify the invasion. He also stated that he regretted not being able to convince the Americans to invest more in post-invasion reconstruction. Responding to accusations that, as chancellor at the time of the invasion, he restricted much needed funding to the armed services, he said that he had told then Prime Minister Tony Blair that ‘right from the beginning…I would not try to rule out any military option on the grounds of cost’.

Israelis and Palestinians clash at al Aqsa mosque

On Friday Israeli security forces entered the al Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem in response to Palestinian protesters throwing stones at nearby police and Jewish worshippers. Thirty people were injured in the incident, which saw security personnel using tear gas and stun grenades to disperse protesters. The incident occurs in a period of heightened tensions over holy sites in Israel and the West Bank. The al Aqsa mosque compound is important to both Muslims and Jews as ‘the Noble Sanctuary’ and ‘the Wailing Wall’ respectively. The clash follows the decision by Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu to classify two sites in the Israeli-occupied West Bank as Israeli heritage sites. The visit of then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount, where the Al Aqsa mosque is located, is viewed by many analysts as the spark that began the second or ‘Al Aqsa’ intifada in 2000.

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