Iraqis go to the polls in first general election since defeating Daesh

Iraqis have started voting on Saturday in country’s first parliamentary polls since Baghdad declared the routing of Daesh in a devastating campaign five months ago. Nearly 7,000 candidates, including 2,011 women, are vying for seats in the 329-strong parliament, which will elect Iraq’s president and prime minister.

Many contenders are outgoing lawmakers and politicians, seen as having done little to fight corruption and improve services in the OPEC member country. Incumbent Shiite Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, credited with the victory over Daesh, is eyeing a second term in office. He is competing on the cross-sectarian Victory Alliance list. However, splits among leaders of the country’s Shiite majority make it unlikely for a single electoral alliance to secure enough seats to form the government on its own.

Some 22.5 million Iraqis are eligible voters, according to official figures. Polls have opened at 7am (0400 GMT) and will close at 6pm. Official results are expected to be announced on Sunday due to the introduction of an electronic voting system.

Iraqi authorities have tightened security for the election, amid fears of attacks by Islamic State remnants. The country’s border crossings and airports were closed on Friday at midnight until the end of the one-day balloting. Last month, Daesh threatened to attack Iraq’s polling stations, saying any participant in the vote would be targeted. Cells thought to be linked to the terrorist group have mounted scattered attacks across Iraq since al-Abadi declared in December the recapture all the territory seized by Daesh in the country.

The country has struggled to find a formula for stability since a U.S.-led invasion toppled dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003, and many Iraqis have lost faith in their politicians. Whoever the new parliament chooses as prime minister will face an array of challenges after a three-year war against Islamic State which cost the country about $100 billion.

“I will participate but I will mark an ‘X’ on my ballot. There is no security, no jobs, no services. Candidates are just looking to line up their pockets, not to help people,” said Jamal Mowasawi, a 61-year-old butcher. The three main candidates for prime minister, incumbent Haider al-Abadi, his predecessor Nuri al-Maliki and Shi’ite militia commander Hadi al-Amiri all need the support of Iran. U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal will prompt Iran to maintain its vast political and military influence in Iraq, the most important Arab state for Tehran.

Abadi is considered by analysts to be marginally ahead, but victory is far from certain for the man who raised hopes that he could forge unity when he came to office. But while he reached out to minority Sunnis he alienated Kurds after crushing their bid for independence. He improved his standing with the victory against Daesh, which had occupied a third of Iraq. But Abadi lacks charisma and has failed to improve the economy and tackle corruption. He also cannot rely solely on votes from his community as the Shi’ite voter base is unusually split this year. Instead, he is looking to draw support from other groups. Even if Abadi’s Victory Alliance list wins the most seats, he still has to negotiate the formation of a coalition government, which must be concluded within 90 days of the election. “It’s the same faces and same programs. Abadi is the best of the worst; at least under his rule we had the liberation (from Daesh),” said Hazem al-Hassan, 50-year-old fishmonger in Baghdad.

Amiri spent more than two decades fighting Saddam from exile in Iran. The 63-year-old leads the Badr Organisation, which was the backbone of the volunteer forces that fought Daesh. He hopes to capitalize on his battlefield successes. Victory for Amiri would be a win for Iran, which is locked in proxy wars for influence across the Middle East.

Disillusion

But many Iraqis are disillusioned with war heroes and politicians who have failed to restore state institutions and provide badly needed health and education services. “There is no trust between the people and the governing class,” said Hussein Fadel, a 42-year-old supermarket cashier in the capital. “All sides are terrible. I will not vote.” Critics say Maliki’s sectarian policies created an atmosphere that enabled Islamic State to gain sympathy among some Sunnis as it swept across Iraq in 2014. Maliki was sidelined soon afterward, having been in office for eight years, but he is now trying to make a comeback. In contrast to Abadi, with his cross-sectarian message, Maliki is again posing as Iraq’s Shi’ite champion, and has proposed doing away with the unofficial power-sharing model under which all main parties have cabinet representatives.

Iraq’s Sunni minority had dominated key positions in government during Saddam’s brutal rule, whereas majority Shi’ites have held sway since a U.S-led invasion toppled the dictator in 2003. Maliki, who pushed for U.S. troop withdrawals, and Amiri, who speaks fluent Farsi and spent years in exile in Iran during Saddam’s time, are both seen as much closer to Tehran than Abadi. The post of prime minister has been reserved for a Shi’ite, the speaker is a Sunni, and the ceremonial presidency has gone to a Kurd – all three chosen by parliament.

More than 7,000 candidates in 18 provinces, or governorates, are running this year for 329 parliamentary seats. In Kirkuk, the main oil city disputed by Iraq’s Kurds and the Baghdad government, 90-year-old Najm al-Azzawi has witnessed Iraq’s upheaval over many years: Saddam Hussein’s military adventures and the crippling international sanctions that followed, the U.S. occupation, sectarian bloodshed and Daesh’s reign of terror. But he has not lost hope. “God save Iraqis from the darkness they have been in,” he said. “It is the most joyful thing to vote.”

Sources: Syria & Iraq News/dpa/Reuters

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Al-Abadi tries to break sectarian barriers in Iraqi elections

In advance of national elections next weekend, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is the front-runner here, and if he ultimately prevails, he will make political history as a Shiite politician in this overwhelmingly Sunni city. The electoral strength of Abadi and his ticket in Mosul, the country’s second-largest city, underscores his nationwide popularity and bodes well for his reelection, which U.S. officials have repeatedly indicated they would like to see. But beyond that, Abadi’s success in a place that had been the jewel of Daesh would represent an opening for cooperation between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in a country long bedeviled by sectarian grievance and violence.

When campaigning officially kicked off last month for the May 12 elections, the boulevards of this city were instantly lined with candidate posters. But it was Abadi’s face, smiling softly and ubiquitous on the vehicle-jammed streets, that stood out as both familiar and entirely unexpected. For the first time since Iraq began electing a legislature in 2006, a Shiite politician is headlining an electoral ticket in Mosul. Abadi’s list is named “Nasr,” or “Victory,” a reference in part to his role in ending the city’s Daesh trauma by orchestrating the military campaign that liberated the city last year. Mosul may now be the ultimate proving ground for Abadi’s message of nationalism over sect. “Abadi is a symbol of shedding sectarianism,” said Rana al-Naemi, 44, an English teacher from Mosul running on the prime minister’s list. “The people of Iraq are ready for this.” Alluding to the traditional colors worn by Sunni and Shiite clerics, she added, “Sectarianism is what destroyed us — whether it was a white turban or a black turban.”

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi (C) stands with candidates from his Nasr coalition during a campaign gathering in Kirkuk on April 28, 2018. [Photo: Marwan Ibrahim/AFP]

Once considered a weak and unremarkable leader who stumbled into power in the midst of the Daesh blitz that conquered about one-third of Iraq, Abadi has been campaigning on a message of national unity in hopes of breaking the cycle of sectarian fighting that has marked Iraq’s politics since the U.S. ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Abadi’s popularity has soared since he managed the successful military campaign to claw back Iraqi cities from Daesh while artfully juggling the interests of the United States and Iran. He also won plaudits from many Iraqis when he dispatched troops to block an attempted secession by Kurds in the north late last year. “One thing that we see consistently is that Prime Minister Abadi has a more balanced degree of support across all regions and across all ethnic and sectarian religious groups,” said a senior U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss Iraq’s internal politics. For the United States, Abadi’s presence in Mosul and other Sunni areas, such as Fallujah, is reassuring. He has worked closely with Washington in the fight against the Islamic State while maintaining cordial ties with Iran and reestablishing relations with regional powers such as Saudi Arabia.

The war against Daesh has significantly altered the political map in Iraq, where Shiites are the majority. In previous elections, one or two major Shiite coalitions dominated the vote and subsequently the formation of the government. This year, the support of the Shiite political establishment is fragmented among Abadi and challengers old and new. His predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, though severely diminished because of losses to Daesh, is headlining a ticket that is running on a traditional platform of Shiite supremacy. Hadi al-Amiri, the head of the powerful Badr Organization, is the face of a new coalition called “Fatah,” or “Conquest,” which represents Shiite militias that helped defeat the Islamic State, earning much public support. Many of those militias, including Badr, are backed by Iran, and a key element of their campaign has been urging the expulsion of U.S. forces from Iraq. In a sign of confidence, a number of the militias are running candidates in Mosul even though Abadi kept many of them out of the city during the battle because of their ultra-sectarian leanings.

With those major blocs essentially splitting the vote in Iraq’s Shiite heartland, any candidate hoping to become prime minister must run well in Mosul and other Sunni areas. The province of Nineveh, of which Mosul is the capital, is quickly emerging as one of the hottest contests in the election. This year, 940 candidates have been registered, compared with just 455 in 2014. Nineveh holds 31 seats in Iraq’s upcoming 329-member parliament, second only to Baghdad’s 69. Iraq’s parliament elects the prime minister and president, and those 31 votes could prove critical to Abadi winning a second term. His Nasr coalition is the only one fielding candidates in all 18 provinces, and many observers have concluded that he is the only candidate who can credibly claim to be a genuine centrist leader — even though his rhetoric of making a fresh, nonsectarian start has also been embraced by many of his opponents. “His attitude is one that he will be more successful with a larger variety of constituencies than many of his opponents,” the U.S. official said.

Rasha Al Aqeedi, a political researcher at the Dubai-based al-Mesbar Studies and Research Center and a Mosul native, said that Iraq’s minorities are unlikely to be enthusiastic about the prospect of another Shiite head of government but that Abadi remains the only candidate with the credentials to garner votes among Sunnis. “If you compare him to everyone else, he does stand out for sure,” she said. But there are major roadblocks Abadi must overcome in Mosul. Voter apathy runs deep among the population after the grueling nine-month battle against Daesh. In western Mosul, the situation is dire. The Old City neighborhood, where some of the most intense fighting took place, remains largely leveled, with some families living in the skeletons of what used to be their homes. On one street, a single election poster was hung next to a sign warning of unexploded ordnance in the area — drawing a scornful smile from a police officer stationed at the corner. “These politicians have no shame,” he said. Across the Tigris River in eastern Mosul, there are barely any reminders of the fight. New markets have popped up at a startling pace, and cratered roads and bullet-pocked buildings have been repaired. But the restoration has been largely self-financed by the city’s residents, who are becoming impatient with the central government’s slow response. “There will be no change — if there was going to be any change, it would have happened already,” said Bilal Mohamed, a 41-year-old restaurant owner who said he will abstain from voting. “These candidates are paying attention to Mosul now, but I’m certain once they get elected, they will forget about us.” But he said that if Abadi wins, it “will be the best possible outcome in a bad overall scenario.” Saleh Elias, a 34-year-old journalist, said he does not expect much to change after the elections but will vote in the hopes of registering his voice. Not doing so has been disastrous in the past, he said. “This city has always rejected the political process, and what we ended up with was Daesh,” Elias said.

Abadi has stocked his ticket in Mosul with both new and old faces. Most notable is Khaled al-Obeidi, a career politician whom Abadi named as his first defense minister in 2014. Obeidi is a Mosul native widely respected for his role in the battle against Daesh. He retains his popularity despite being ousted by parliament in 2016 during a corruption probe in which he was never formally charged. Mohsen Abdelkader, 37, a law professor also running on the ticket, said Abadi and Obeidi had inherited a “military that was in shambles” and restored it so it could eventually liberate Mosul. Abdelkader added that they had treated all Iraqis as equal under the law. “People in Mosul are starting to feel like they are citizens just like the people of Baghdad, and this is because of the leadership of Abadi and Obeidi,” he said. Abadi has also recruited local officials who gained prominence during the battle against the Islamic State. Basma Baseem, the head of the Mosul local council, was vocal during the conflict, drawing attention to the plight of civilians in the crossfire. “Nasr is not just an election coalition. It’s an ambitious project that will start after the elections,” she said.

But Abadi’s popularity has also made him a prime target for his opponents. Wissal Ali, a former member of parliament, is running on a purely Sunni ticket led by Osama al-Nujaifi — one of Iraq’s current vice presidents and a former speaker of parliament from Mosul. On the campaign trail, Ali has accused Abadi’s coalition of being no different from that of the Shiite militias: outsiders interested only in votes and not in Mosul’s well-being. She said the legacy of the Islamic State, often known in Arabic as Daesh, has left the city politically vulnerable. “People understand that the gangs of Daesh destroyed the city but also gave a chance for parties with outside agendas to gain a foothold in the city,” she said.

Sources: The Washington Post/Syria & Iraq News

Iraqi parliament approves $88bn budget, Kurdish MPs boycott vote

Iraq’s parliament approved a long-delayed budget on Saturday, the first since declaring victory over Islamic State after three years of war, but Kurdish lawmakers boycotted the vote over their region’s diminished allocation. The budget of 104 trillion Iraqi dinars ($88 billion) is based on projected oil exports of 3.8 million barrels per day (bpd) at a price of $46, a copy of the final bill showed. It envisions government revenues of 91.64 trillion dinars ($77.6 billion) with a deficit of 12.5 trillion dinars ($10.58 billion).

Parliament was meant to pass the budget before the start of the 2018 financial year in January but all three main blocs, Shi’ite Arabs, Sunni Arabs, and Kurds, had serious issues with the government’s proposal. “We boycotted the vote and there are proposals for Kurdistan to withdraw from the entire political process in Iraq over the unfair treatment we have received,” said Kurdish MP Ashwaq Jaff. The budget cut the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) share from the 17 percent the region has traditionally received since the fall of Saddam Hussein. It did not specify a percentage to be allocated to the KRG, instead stipulating it would receive funds proportional to its share of the population. In a previous draft the KRG portion was set at 12.67 percent, which is how much of Iraq’s population Baghdad says the provinces in Kurdistan make up. The KRG disputes that estimation.

The government said on Tuesday it had reached an agreement with the Kurds to resume Kirkuk oil exports through Turkey’s Ceyhan port but gave no precise timeline. The projected 3.8 million bpd exports in the budget includes a 250,000 bpd contribution from the Kurdistan region, lawmakers said on Saturday. It was not immediately clear what effect the Kurdish boycott of the vote would have on that.

Competing interests

Shi’ite lawmakers wanted more spending allocated to the southern oil-producing, predominantly Shi’ite, provinces as well as greater salaries and benefits for the Iran-backed Shi’ite militias known as Popular Mobilisation Forces, who helped Iraq’s security forces defeat Islamic State. Sunni lawmakers wanted more allocated toward reconstructing areas retaken from the militants, which were predominantly Sunni. The areas include Iraq’s second city Mosul. On Thursday the“three presidencies” of Iraq, its Shi’ite prime minister, Sunni parliament speaker, and Kurdish president, had met to discuss how to push the budget through.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi congratulated Iraqis over the passing of the budget on Saturday and said it was the result of cooperation between the executive and legislative branches. Speaker Salim al-Jabouri said the budget addressed Kurdish concerns and that the federal government would pay the salaries of Kurdish civil servants and Peshmerga fighters, as well as welfare entitlements. Baghdad had stopped paying salaries or making budget transfers to the Kurdish regional capital Erbil in 2014 when the Kurds started independently selling oil. Oil exports, Iraq’s main source of revenue, have risen above 3.4 million barrels per day this year but a global slump in prices for crude, compounded by the costs of rebuilding an infrastructure damaged by the war against Islamic State, have battered the country’s finances.

Double suicide bombing kills at least 26 in Baghdad

A double suicide bombing killed 26 people in Baghdad on Monday, officials said, the second such attack in the Iraqi capital in three days. Dr Abdel Ghani al-Saadi, health chief for east Baghdad, reported “26 dead and 90 wounded”. “Two suicide bombers blew themselves up in Tayyaran Square in central Baghdad,” said General Saad Maan, spokesman for the Joint Operations Command, which includes the army and the police. Tayyaran Square is a bustling centre of commerce and a place where day labourers gather in the early morning waiting for jobs. It has been the site of deadly attacks in the past. An AFP photographer at the site of the bombing said many ambulances had gathered and security forces had been deployed in large numbers.


There was no immediate claim of responsibility.

Sources: AFP/Syria & Iraq News

Masoud Barzani will hand over presidential powers on November 1

Kurdistan Region’s veteran leader Masoud Barzani will not extend his presidential term beyond November 1, a Kurdish government official said on Saturday.

His decision came just weeks after a referendum on Kurdish independence backfired and triggered a crisis for Iraq’s Kurds who had been enjoying a period of unprecedented autonomy. A plan to divide up the president’s powers was outlined in a letter Barzani sent to the Kurdish parliament on Saturday, the official told Reuters. The plan asks parliament to distribute the president’s powers among the government, parliament and judiciary. Barzani’s current term was set to expire in four days, the same date that presidential and parliamentary elections were due to be held. However, those elections were delayed indefinitely last week, amidst an escalating regional crisis.

Critics say the Sept. 25 independence referendum, orchestrated and championed by the 71-year-old Barzani, has left a bleak outlook for Iraq’s Kurds. Less than four weeks after Kurds in the region voted overwhelmingly to break away from Iraq, the central government launched a military offensive to wrest back the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which the Kurds regard as both their spiritual homeland, and a key source of revenue for their would-be independent state. It was one of several retaliatory measures taken by Baghdad, which vehemently opposed the referendum. In a matter of days the Iraqi government has transformed the balance of power in the north of the country, exerting tremendous pressure on Barzani to step aside and wrecking decades-old dreams of Kurdish independence. Iraqi forces have continued to advance on all Kurdish-held territory outside the autonomous region’s borders.

Iraq’s prime minister demanded on Thursday that Kurds declare their independence referendum void, rejecting the Kurdish autonomous region’s offer to suspend its independence push to resolve a crisis through talks. Earlier this year, Barzani said he did not intend to stand in the November elections. However, prior to the referendum, few expected he would stick to his promise. Barzani has held the office of the presidency since 2005. The region last held a presidential election in 2009, in which Barzani won. His term of office expired in 2013 and was extended twice. The president is expected to address his people before his term formally expires, marking the end of a storied career.

Barzani was born in 1946, soon after his legendary father, Mulla Mustafa, founded a party to fight for the rights of Iraq’s Kurds. After decades spent fighting with the Peshmerga, Barzani became a central figure in the drive to create an autonomous Kurdish state in northern Iraq, after Saddam Hussein was toppled in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Barzani’s letter will be discussed by parliament on Sunday, though the government official said it was unclear whether ministers would need to vote the plan into action during the session.

Sources: Syria & Iraq News/Reuters

Kurdistan Regional Government offers to freeze referendum results: statement

The Kurdistan Regional Government in a statement early on Wednesday offered to freeze the results of an earlier referendum on independence as part of an offer to defuse the crisis with the Iraqi central government in Baghdad.

The statement also calls for an immediate ceasefire and a halt to all military operations in Kurdistan Region. The KRG calls for an open dialogue between Erbil and Baghdad based on the country’s constitution.

As Iraq and Kurdistan are faced with grave and dangerous circumistances, we are all obliged to act responsibily in order to prevent further violence and clashes between Iraqi and Peshmerga forces.
Attacks and confrontations between Iraqi and Peshmerga forces that started on October 16, 2017, especially today’s clashes, have caused damage to both sides and could lead to a continuous bloodshed, inflicting pain and social unrest among different components of Iraqi society.
Certainly, continued fighting does not lead any side to victory, but it will drive the country towards disarray and chaos, affecting all aspects of life.
Therefore, in order to fulfill our responsibilities and obligations towards the people of Kurdistan and Iraq, we propose the following to the Iraqi Government and the Iraqi and world public opinion:

1. Immediate ceasefire and halt all military operations in the Kurdistan Region.
2. Freeze the results of referendum conducted in the Iraqi Kurdistan.
3. Start an open dialogue between the Kurdistan Regional Government and Iraqi Federal Government on the basis of the Constitution.

Kurdistan Regional Government
October 24, 2017