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Iraq Failing Security Test Ahead Of Vote

The aftermath of one of many explosions that rocked Iraq earlier this week.
The aftermath of one of many explosions that rocked Iraq earlier this week.
If postwar Iraq's first major elections are the barometer of its ability to maintain security on its own, the government appears to be failing the test.

In the days leading up to the April 20 vote, which will decide the make-up of provincial councils in much of Iraq, a wave of deadly bombings and political assassinations are threatening to destabilize the entire country.

The surge in violence comes amid a long-running political crisis and the failure of security forces to stem a rejuvenated Al-Qaeda and contain the spillover of violence from neighboring Syria.

Iraqi security forces were on high alert for additional attacks in the lead-up to the vote. Tougher checkpoint searches and heightened security were implemented around the country. Despite the moves, however, the authorities were unable to prevent the election campaign from being marred by bloodshed.

At least 50 people were killed and 300 people injured on April 15, when a string of around 30 bombings and a shooting were carried out in 12 different areas of the country. It was the deadliest violence in nearly a month. At least 14 candidates running in the upcoming vote have been killed in recent weeks, the latest being the assassination of a moderate Sunni candidate on April 14.

Denise Natali, an Iraq expert at the National Defense University in Washington, says internal political disputes within the government are jeopardizing the ability of the country's security forces to address spiraling violence. She maintains that political divisions in Iraq have raised questions about whether the armed forces have the political support and unity of force to secure the country.

"The Iraqi central government is attempting to address some of these terrorist threats to the best that it can," Natali says. "But it's unclear whether they still have the capabilities -- because of this internal fragmentation and these deep-rooted political threats inside the government -- to address some of these security issues."

Unwieldy Coalition

There has been a protracted political crisis in the government, which is made up of an unwieldy coalition of Shi'a, Sunnis, and Kurds. Critics of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki accuse him of being an autocratic leader who has failed to live up to power-sharing agreements.

The country's minority Sunnis, feeling sidelined after the fall of Saddam Hussein and the rise of the Shi'ite-led government, have held huge rallies to protest what they say is government persecution. Meanwhile, a power struggle within the Sunni community itself has pitted Sunni insurgents against secular Sunni politicians.

Violence in Iraq has ebbed since the height of sectarian violence in 2006-07, when thousands were killed. But 2012 marked the first time the death toll had risen in three years. Sunni insurgents linked to Al-Qaeda have claimed responsibility for a string of deadly attacks on Shi'ite targets and security forces.

Douglas Ollivant, a senior national security studies fellow at the New America Foundation, attributes the rising death toll to Al-Qaeda and its local affiliates in Iraq regaining lost ground. This is especially notable, he says, in the western desert near Syria's border, where the network has profited from the flow of Sunni fighters opposing the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The Iraqi wing of Al-Qaeda in Iraq -- the Islamic State of Iraq -- recently announced that it was merging with the Al-Nusra Front rebels fighting in Syria. Sunni militants see the Assad government and Baghdad's Shi'ite-led government as oppressors of Sunnis.

According to Ollivant, the spillover of violence from Syria into Iraq is one of the biggest challenges to Iraq's stability and the ability of its security forces to protect the country.

"There is a lot of money and a lot of supplies going to Syria to the antiregime forces, a significant portion of which are aligned with Al-Qaeda in Iraq," he says. "We should expect that a lot of that money, funding, and psychological support is bleeding across the border to Iraq."

Sowing Fear

Ollivant, who was the director for Iraq at the U.S. National Security Council, suggests that Sunni insurgents in Iraq have stepped up their attacks recently to sow fear among voters and election officials in an attempt to derail the elections.

"The driver of the recent violence is that Al-Qaeda realizes that if the elections go well then they lose -- maybe not lose the war but they will lose the battle..." he says. "There will no doubt be a significant setback for Al-Qaeda in Iraq if the elections go well."

More than 8,000 candidates are running for nearly 450 provincial council seats in the April 20 vote. An estimated 15.5 million Iraqi citizens are eligible to vote. Around 650,000 members of Iraq's military and police force eligible to vote already cast their ballots on April 13.

But the credibility of the vote, the first elections since parliamentary elections in 2010, has already been drawn into question.

Only 12 out of 18 provinces are taking part. Baghdad has delayed voting in three provinces administered by the country's autonomous Kurdish region, the disputed city of Kirkuk, and the Sunni-majority Anbar and Nineveh provinces.

Ethnically mixed northern regions such as Nineveh Province and the city of Kirkuk are currently at the center of a dispute between Baghdad and the autonomous Kurdistan authority. Iraqi officials often cite the dispute as one of the greatest threats to the country's stability.

Since 2003, the Kurdistan authority has claimed an expanding number of areas that were never part of the Kurdish discourse, including Nineveh Province and cities such as Tuz Khurmatu and Jalalu, both north of Baghdad.

Amid the string of attacks on April 15, six people were killed and 67 wounded by three car bombs in Tuz Khurmatu. In Kirkuk, five people were killed and 44 wounded.

In Natali's view, territorial disputes, which have been accompanied by frequent border skirmishes and growing violence, pose a significant challenge to Iraq's stability.

"I see this encroachment and the reconfiguration of boundaries as extremely serious," she says. "The problem is that on the ground there are border-area disputes, which you see [in the form] of continued or increasing bombing in these areas and greater instability on the frontlines. I see the territories' disputes as destabilizing from a security perspective moving forward."
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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the regional desk editor for Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2012, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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