Iraq election tensions threaten renewed instability

The close race in Iraq’s elections sparks heightened tensions. The head of NATO calls for a missile defence pact targeting Iran. A South Korean vessel sinks off the coast of North Korea. All this and more, in today’s security update.
Oliver Scanlan
26 March 2010

On the eve of the announcement of the results of Iraq's second post-invasion election, the two key figures currently commanding the highest number of seats have both stated that they will not accept defeat, leading to rising tensions and renewed fears of a return to mass violence. The incumbent prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, and former prime minister, Iyad Allawi, are both within reach of victory in an incredibly close election. Allawi’s Iraqiya nationalist party is thought to have won 91 seats in the 325 seat national assembly, with Maliki’s State of Law list is likely to have won 90.

At this stage, with 95% of the votes counted, the margin between the two parties may be as slight as 11,000 out of 13 million that were cast. Maliki and his supporters have called for a manual recount, alleging voting fraud, but the chairman of Iraq’s election commission, Faraj al Haydari, has said that this is unnecessary. Although he defended Maliki’s right to raise concerns, he showed no sign of flexibility on the issue, stating flatly ‘…we don’t take orders. This is law. It’s an election.’

Maliki caused disquiet earlier in the week when he invoked his position as commander-in-chief when warning of the threat posed to Iraq’s stability by voting fraud. One of the prime minister’s key allies, Sami al-Askari, has said Maliki would not directly instigate an uprising, but that he may be unable to prevent one if events spiral out of control.

The openSecurity verdict: The secular-Shi’ia divide in Iraq means that it was always unlikely that either Allawi or Maliki would win with a decisive majority. Allawi, despite being a Shi’ia, has secured much of his support from the Sunni community, his Iraqiya list running on a secular nationalist platform. Not only is this likely to provoke mistrust among the Shi’ia communities, but it also means his appointment would likely be strongly opposed by the Kurds; he has attracted a strong following from Sunni Arabs in the northern towns of Mosul and Kirkuk which, also being home to many Kurds, are flashpoints for ethnic unrest.

On the other hand, Maliki’s difficulties arise from within the Shi’ia community. Although his party has done well among Shi'ia, the vote has been split by Moqtada al Sadr’s party, which is implacably opposed to returning Maliki as Prime Minister. Sadr holds Maliki responsible for colluding with the US in their stand against the Shi’ia leader’s Mehdi army militia in 2008.

The forming of a coalition government was always going to be a lengthy and troubled process, in some ways one more sensitive and fragile than the elections themselves. It is difficult to envisage a situation where either man could overcome the opposition of different sectarian groups in order to secure the premiership. It is unclear whether this will translate into armed violence; all parties are aware of the opprobrium, both from the Iraqi public and the US military, that the shattering of Iraq's limited security would evoke.

If violence severe enough to compromise the planned US military withdrawal does break out, the perceived perpetrators would rapidly find themselves in the political wilderness. It is to be hoped that, instead of direct action, all parties sit down to the interminable process of horse trading and negotiation that will be needed to produce an acceptable compromise government.

Netanyahu defiant on Jerusalem

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stated that his government’s policy in East Jerusalem will remain unchanged and that the city will remain the undivided capital of the Jewish state. The announcement came before he was due to meet with cabinet colleagues to discuss recent talks with US President Barack Obama. The US stated that progress had been made during the meeting but Netanyahu’s defiant rhetoric suggests that the diplomatic crisis is yet to be resolved. The row, precipitated by Israel’s announcement that 1,600 new houses will be built in occupied East Jerusalem, has led to the collapse of US-sponsored proximity talks with the Palestinians and brought about a thirty-year low in US-Israel relations.

NATO calls for missile pact as think tank warns of Israeli nuclear strike

On Friday, in an advance text of a speech due to be made on Saturday, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen called for an agreement between member states to make missile defence an alliance mission. Highlighting the increasing threat posed by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile technology, Rasmussen called for a common pact on missile defence to be agreed at November’s NATO summit. He emphasised that every option should be explored in collaborating with Russia towards this end.

Noting that more than 30 countries possessed or are developing long range ballistic missiles, Rasmussen underscored the potential threat posed by Iran. The Islamic Republic currently possesses the Shahab 3 Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM) which can potentially strike targets as far away as Greece and Turkey. Although currently untested, the Shahab 6 could threaten the whole of Europe as well as Russia.

On the same day, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a respected US security think tank attached to Georgetown University, released a report speculating that Israel might use tactical nuclear weapons in a pre-emptive attack against Iran. The report, co-authored by Anthony Cordesman and Abdullah Toukan, suggest that the nature of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, being predominately based in hardened, underground facilities, would render conventional munitions ineffective.

Retired Air Force colonel Sam Gardiner has said that the decision to use nuclear weapons would depend on Israel’s goals. If their aim is to retard the Iranian nuclear programme for three to five years, then this could only be achieved through non-conventional munitions. Gardiner suggests that it is more likely that the goal would be to set the programme back by one year, an objective which could be achieved with conventional bombs.

South Korean naval vessel sinks off the DPRK coast

It has been reported that a vessel of the South Korean navy is sinking near Baengnyeong island, off the west coast of North Korea. A rescue operation involving six naval ships and two coastguard craft is underway, and has so far retrieved 50 members of the 100-strong crew. The South Korean government has convened an emergency meeting to discuss the issue, but has yet to confirm or deny reports that a North Korean ship was involved. There is speculation that the South Korean vessel fired at a North Korean surface contact and that it was subsequently sunk by a torpedo.

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