More foreign than domestic interest

There are many claims and complaints that external elements are trying to manipulate the coming elections in Iraq. Some of these are substantiated while others are made for propaganda purposes. That there are strong external influences is beyond doubt. Some of these external elements play a direct role while others are satisfied with an indirect one.

The most obvious elements directly interfering in the elections are the US and Iran. In the run-up to the elections, US representatives in Iraq were involved in talks with those whom they regard as people or parties that had been marginalized in previous elections. The talks, however, prompted the present Iraqi government and Tehran to accuse the US of attempting to bring the Baath party back to power. Mahmoud Ahmedinezhad, Iran’s president, even publicly declared that US attempts to bring back the Baathists would not succeed and that the Iraqis would not allow such a comeback. Subsequently, the government’s de-Baathification committee issued a list banning some 500 candidates from participating in the coming elections under the pretext that they were Baathists.

The US administration indirectly denounced the move and called–through officials like Joe Biden, the vice-president, and Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state–for elections that would allow representatives from all sectors of Iraq to participate. The highest-ranking US military commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno, however, went further and accused the two men leading the de-Baathification committee, Ahmad Chalabi and Ali al-Lami, of being agents of Iran working on the direct instructions of the hardline revolutionary guards of Iran. Then, when an Iraqi appeals court issued a judgment saying that the ban on 500 candidates was illegal, the US was accused of meddling in the internal matters of Iraq. The court was eventually made to change its ruling.

Both Iran and the US are deeply concerned about the results of the coming elections. The US is interested in having a secular and more representative parliament and government in order to facilitate the withdrawal of its troops from Iraq in 2011. It is also interested in presenting itself as a mediating power that, despite the chaos and disaster, managed to bring democracy to Iraq. Needless to say, a stable Iraq with a weak government would best serve US interests.

Iran has other objectives. Tehran wants the Iraqi government and parliament primarily filled with people loyal to Iran, if not actually holding Iranian citizenship as a second nationality. In other words, Iran wants to see all opposition to the present Shi’ite-dominated government overcome. There are rumors that, as happened in previous elections, ordinary Iranians are being covertly infiltrated across the border with false Iraqi documents to take part in the vote, especially in the southern Shi’ite provinces, where strong anti-Iranian sentiments are increasing especially after the Iranian occupation of an Iraqi oil field on the border with Iran. Shi’ites there are also unhappy with the increasing presence of the Iranian intelligence service in their areas as well as in the central government. In short, unlike the US, Iran wants to see a strong, loyal militant Shi’ite government in Baghdad that is ready to side with it in any future confrontation with the US.

A third external party that is showing a keen interest in the Iraqi elections and has started to play a direct part, is Saudi Arabia. It is an open secret that the Saudis have been supporting, financially and politically, some Sunni groups in Iraq in an attempt to balance the overwhelming Shi’ite domination over Iraqi politics since 2003. Lately, Riyadh has become more open in its support for the former Shi’ite prime minister, Iyad Allawi, who is trying to present himself as both secular and obedient to the US political vision in the region. In fact it was Allawi’s list that suffered the most from the decision to bar 500 candidates from standing for election. In an unprecedented move, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia publicly received Allawi recently, a reception that was widely covered by the media but strangely only included one other senior official, the director of Saudi intelligence, Prince Miqrin bin Abdul Aziz. It seems that the Saudis, after realizing the futility of wishing for a Sunni-dominated government in Iraq are convinced that the best solution is to support a secular Shi’ite leader loyal to western politics, with a fair number of Sunni personalities at his side and no allegiance to Iran.

The role of other influential elements such as Syria and Turkey is indirect. Syria is, on the one hand, not ready to antagonize Iran and lose support in its struggle with Israel, and, on the other, not happy with accusations that it is facilitating the infiltration of terrorists into Iraq. Thus the Syrians are indirectly supporting the weakening of the present government, hoping that the large Iraqi community it is sheltering, mostly Baathist, can have a bigger say in the elections.

Turkey’s major concern is increasing Kurdish influence and the presence of PKK fighters in Iraq. It is obvious that Turkey is eager to see a strong central government, a trimming of Kurdish influence and the safeguarding of the rights and position of the Turcoman minority in Kirkuk. While Turkish support for the Turkmens in Kirkuk is clear enough, the Turkish government is also satisfied with the growing strength of the Islamic Kurdish parties and that of the Movement for Change in Iraqi Kurdistan. There are rumors that Ankara is indirectly supporting the opposing Kurdish Islamic parties in Iraqi Kurdistan.

There are other elements that play a secret role with the aim of keeping Iraq destabilized. These elements, some of them neighboring and others regional, are interested in not seeing Iraq strong, united and affluent. They think that such an Iraq could always be a threat to them. Thus these elements play an indirect role in widening the gap between the different lists participating in the elections.

In short, the forthcoming Iraqi election is attracting more foreign attention than domestic. Most Iraqis, after the experience of the past seven years and two elections, have lost interest due to the huge amount of corruption, insecurity, lack of services and increasing poverty. Hence it is likely that external factors and influences will decide election results.