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Thread: Iraq: The exit looms

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    Iraq: The exit looms

    The State of Law bloc which backs the current Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, could well end up with the most votes when the results are declared today, but that will not necessarily help him. The votes are so evenly spread, and the gap between the prime minister's bloc and that of his main challenger, Ayad Allawi, so slight, that the kingmakers of this election will be the two blocs who are trailing in the count the Shia followers of Moqtada al-Sadr, who are on the brink of achieving their greatest political influence, and the Kurds. Weeks of horse trading are set to follow and all manner of fixes could be arranged. Yesterday the Sadrists said that they could consider piling in behind Mr Maliki's bloc, but not the man himself.

    As Iraq's governing class fights over the spoils of regime change, the only question that interests Washington is to what extent Iraq can stand alone without the presence of 100,000 US troops, most of whom are coming home by the end of the summer. Could the turmoil be such as to imperil the timetable itself? Dr Toby Dodge, a leading expert on Iraq, argues in his latest paper that, given the record of the US occupation and the profound limitation of America's present stature, the Obama administration is right to continue to draw down. But that is not to say that the Iraq the US leaves behind will be a beacon of democracy with a strong sense of the rule of law. Far from it.

    On the plus side, the election drew a 62% turnout, despite a bombing campaign in which 38 people were killed and 90 injured. The strong showing of Mr Allawi's cross-sectarian bloc among the minority Sunnis, especially in Anbar and Diyala, can also be interpreted as a sign that future battles will be political, not military. Iraq is quieter than it was when sectarian violence exploded in 2006 and it took five months to form a government. Under today's conditions a government should not take that long to form.

    But on the minus side, the system is still dangerously fluid. It is easy to gerrymander an election, as a commission charged with de-Ba'athification showed when it banned over 500 candidates from 14 party lists. It is still too dangerous for non-Iraqi UN personnel to travel freely around the country. And to remove Mr Maliki from power would also mean the departure of key army generals accused of turning the force into his private militia. Transparency International rated Iraq the third most corrupt country in the world in 2007 and 2008. Put all this together and Iraq could still descend into dictatorship. This is not a proud legacy for departing US troops, but nor should it encourage the belief that if they stay on, Iraq's democratic deficit is somehow fixable.

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