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Public anger at Iraq's political impasse adds new edge to stability threat

Four months have passed since Iraq's parliamentary elections and the war-torn country is still no closer to having a coherent, working government. The impasse is provoking anger amongst the Iraqi population.

Iraqi demonstrators

Iraqis are furious that leaders are leaving them vulnerable

Despite the country's Election Commission confirming that Iyad Allawi, a Shiite former premier, was the March 7 election's narrow victor, Iraq's political parties are still arguing over which of them has the right to try to form a government. In addition, the process is being further hampered by the struggle between party leaders to create a strong enough coalition to command a majority in parliament.

At the heart of this potentially damaging impasse is the rivalry between Allawi and incumbent Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki. Allawi's Iraqiya coalition narrowly beat the Shiite bloc formed from a merger between al Maliki's Shiite-led State of Law party and the Iran-friendly Iraqi National Alliance into second place in the election, but the prime minister is continuing to fight for a second term in charge.

Both Iraqiya and the State of Law alliance claim the right to have a first stab at forming the government.

"Immature new politicians and those who aspire to political power are a major problem," Hazhir Teimourian, an expert on Middle Eastern affairs at the Limehouse Group of International Analysts in London, told Deutsche Welle. "They point out what needs to be improved and they claim that the problems should have been solved long ago. Then there are those who have allied themselves with such neighbours as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey who whip up public agitation knowing that the government and parliament notice them in the hope of appeasing their masters. The failure to form a new government coalition is equally the fault of politicians at the very centre, in parliament."

While the personal clashes and prolonged political jostling rumble on, the Iraqi people are becoming increasingly angry at their politicians inability to form a government and are concerned that the power vacuum could plunge Iraq back into sectarian war while continuing to struggle with a stubborn insurgency.

Public anger and concerns grows

The need for a strong, unified government to shore up the fragile state of Iraq's social infrastructure and security has been highlighted recently by a number of massive public demonstrations in protest at the political impasse. Thousands of protestors took to the streets of major cities earlier this week to call for a solution the political stalemate and to rage against the on-going power shortages which continue to leave huge areas of the country without electricity.

Supporters of Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki chant anti-Baathist slogans at a protest in Karbala, Iraq, Wednesday, March 24, 2010.

Life is hard enough but the political impasse has added extra strife and instability to Iraqi society

"There has been a large number of protests and even riots over the political situation," said Teimourian. "In Basra, two people were shot dead recently when demonstrators threatened to overrun government offices over inadequate electricity."

"The scarcity of good public services, from electricity in the grid to rubbish on the streets, is a major reason for disenchantment among the populace," he added. "Unemployment is also high, despite enormous advances. In Baghdad, things have not been helped by a large scale migration of the rural poor to the city. The capital now has seven million people and cannot supply them with clean water, as well as other necessary services."

Teimourian believes that Iraqis want a government that is able to improve services, quickly reduce unemployment sharply and stamp out corruption.

"It's an unrealistic expectation, but since this new order was installed by Westerners, the expectations were always going to be unrealistic," he said.#

"The Iraqi public resents the fact that the politicians appear preoccupied with their own political prospects and not the welfare of the country," Joost Hiltermann, the deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa program at the International Crisis Group think-tank in Washington, told Deutsche Welle. "Ordinary people want a government that governs, not politicians who bicker endlessly to no effect. Most simply want a government, any government, that can deliver security and basic services which is why we've seen many demonstrations over failing utilities, specifically lack of electricity."

Insurgents move to exploit power vacuum

As protests against the political situation become increasingly violent, with police and government buildings attacked by stone-throwing demonstrators, insurgent groups intent on taking advantage of Iraq's deadlocked political process have staged a new wave of bombings against financial institutions in the last few weeks, while Baghdad's Green Zone - the capital's fortified government and diplomatic enclave - has come under renewed mortar attack.

An Iraqi army soldier inspects at the site of a car bomb attack near the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq, Sunday, April 4, 2010.

Insurgent attacks on institutions across Iraq have been slowly increasing since the March 7 election

The belief that there is a concerted effort to spread fear and instability through violence is supported by government figures which show a slow but steady rise in deaths across Iraq since the March election. Statistics show that 337 people were killed in unrest in May, the fourth time this year the overall death toll has been higher than in the same month of 2009.

"When it comes to agitators for instability in the country, there are spoilers around, but most insurgents appear to have opted for the political path for now," said Hiltermann. "On the sidelines, some groups, like al Qaeda in Iraq, try to mess things up, and sometimes do get through, but they have very little traction and therefore fail in triggering greater violence."

"Saying that, it is certainly a possibility that shouldn't be ruled out that this continued lack of leadership could lead to a sectarian or civil war," he added. "But for now all sides are still talking and compromise, for example in the form of a power-sharing arrangement between the main winning lists, remains possible."

Hazhir Teimourian believes the threat of esclating violence is minimal at the present time.

"In the short term, there is no such danger," he said. "Al Qaeda and the other extremist champions of Sunni Islam have been pushed aside and security has improved, despite the odd suicide bombing. The national army is also strong enough to deal with any challenge from inside the majority sect, the Shias. Nor is there any possibility that the Kurds would rise in arms to ensure that they have enough representation in the political centre ground."

Political solution needed as US steps up withdrawal

Time may be running out, however. Iraq needs a government which can restore faith in the political process and shore up security before the largest round of United States troop withdrawals cut in-country deployments to 50,000 at the beginning of September. A solution which can give the country stability before public unrest turns to revolt or sectarian violence is provoked on a larger scale needs to be found – and fast.

U.S. Army soldiers from the 37th Engineer Company pose for a photograph at the Crossed Swords monument in the Green Zone in Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, June 24, 2009. The Iraqi government on Tuesday declared a public holiday to mark next week's withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Baghdad and other cities. American forces already have begun pulling back from outposts inside the cities ahead of a June 30 deadline, the first phase of a full withdrawal by the end of 2011

US troops are readying to leave at a time when Iraq's political future and stability is still in doubt

"The most likely political solution to this impasse is a fairly broad-based coalition government that would prevent spoilers from exploiting the situation," Hiltermann said. "On the flip side, a coalition government will find it hard to reach difficult decisions and to govern, and this also could become a source for instability, or at least it could limit the longevity of the government."

Author: Nick Amies

Editor: Michael Knigge

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