With just a few weeks to go until elections are held in Iraq, the electoral commission has resigned, violence is reaching new highs and the political elite remains deeply divided along sectarian lines.
Any hopes that the upcoming legislative elections in Iraq on April 30 may serve to calm the turmoil in the country have been crushed by the latest developments. Earlier this week, the entire Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) resigned. This led Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to warn that the elections may have to be delayed.
The IHEC was protesting against political interference in connection with conflicting rulings from parliament and the judiciary regarding the exclusion of certain candidates from the election. One provision in the electoral law, for example, requires parliamentary hopefuls to be "of good reputation."
"This is of course ridiculous and opens the door to abuse by the executive," Myriam Benraad, Policy Fellow for the Middle East and North Africa Program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told DW.
However, the United Nations envoy to Iraq, Nickolay Mladenov, said the resignations had not yet been formally endorsed by the parliamentary speaker. "This gives a window of opportunity for the Iraqi parliament to address the concerns that the commissioners have," he said.
Maliki's grip on power
The IHEC resignation is one of several repercussions of Maliki's growing political force. In 2005, powerful Shia factions helped Maliki to power, as they assumed he was a lightweight who could be easily manipulated. However, since then, he has done all he can to strengthen his grip on power and solidify his authoritarian rule.
"Maliki has gone out of his way to centralize power in the prime minister's office, fracturing the chain of command," Toby Dodge from the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics told DW. "He has managed to weaken the previously independent agencies set up during the US occupation to oversee the state, such as IHEC, but also the Central Bank of Iraq and the High Commission for Human Rights."
In addition, Maliki has alienated Sunni factions. "Maliki has done his utmost to fracture Sunni political parties and he has succeeded," said Dodge, author of "Iraq, From War to a New Authoritarianism". The result is a wide array of violent groups ranging from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and al Qaeda-linked militants to the Sadrist movement - in the middle a flailing state with a military force of nearly one million.
Homemade problem of violence
The reactivation of these insurgent groups has added fuel to the fire. Bomb blasts believed to be orchestrated by Islamist groups have become nearly a daily occurrence in Iraq. Violence in the country has reached new highs over the past year. In 2013 alone, the bloodshed left nearly 9,000 civilians dead. In addition, the country is rocked by regional unrest, most recently in Anbar province being carried out by al Qaeda-linked militants, where three months of fighting has displaced some 400,000 people.
"The country's security is strained by well-armed and well-trained terrorist groups with access to substantial financial resources," Mladenov said in his briefing to the Security Council earlier this week. "Their goal is clear - establish a permanent foothold beyond the control of the authorities and consolidate a base for the expansion of their operations. They exploit divisions and weaknesses in Iraqi society and want to ultimately make the country ungovernable."
However, analysts agree that this cycle of violence and unrest is homemade. In their report "Iraq in Crisis", published earlier this month through the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington DC, authors Anthony Cordesman and Sam Khazai write that this violence is the result of "self-inflicted wounds caused by its political leaders."
"This struggle has been fueled by actions of the Iraqi government, including broad abuses of human rights and misuse of the Iraqi security forces that has repressed and marginalized large segments of the Iraqi population and has been capitalized upon by al Qaeda and other extremist groups," Cordesman and Khazai said. "As a result, the very forces that should help bring security and stability have destabilized the country, contributed to increased violence, and have become part of the threat."
Reconciliation is necessary
It is particularly this element of marginalized groups that is so problematic, Benraad said. "This radicalization is due to marginalization. The solution in Iraq has to be political and go through the rehabilitation of the Sunnis. They've been sidelined politically."
She added that the government had to be the one initiating reconciliation. "I don't see how Iraq can exist with the omnipresent cycle of violence," she said.
According to Dodge, the violence is a result of the vacuum resulting from the regime change after the fall of Saddam Hussein. "The entire state collapsed: law and order, the economy went haywire," Dodge said. "Then from 2003 to 2007, there was a painful and slow process of rebuilding." However, this period was taken advantage of by violent groups forming and stepping into that vacuum, he added.
It is still unclear how the election process will continue following the IHEC's resignation. Analysts agree that Maliki has shown his political adeptness over the years. "Maliki's political art has been downplayed by many, but he's a real strategist," Benraad said. "He makes it clear that he is le moindre mal, the least evil."
The final decision will be up to the Iraqi people - should the elections take place on April 30.
"It's the Iraqi population who decides and Maliki is still the most popular politician in Iraq," Dodge said. "Democracy in Iraq is badly beaten up and on its last legs, but it's not dead. So that's not so bad."