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Jul 19, 2010

What is going on in Iraqi politics?

BAGHDAD, July 19 (Reuters) – More than four months after Iraq held an election meant to set it on a course out of sectarian war and toward stability, Iraqis are no closer to knowing who their next prime minister will be.

There are some signs of progress in coalition talks between the main Shi’ite blocs, in particular over incumbent Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s demand to be given a second term.

Politicians say fiery anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr might withdraw his veto of Maliki if he agrees to terms, such as the release of detained Sadrists, lifting death sentences and a generous sprinkling of cabinet posts and government jobs.

But mutual suspicions run deep and the hurdles to a final deal remain formidable. The odds are probably still no better than even on Maliki keeping his job. His State of Law coalition came second with 89 seats in the election to 91 won by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s Iraqiya, while the Shi’ite-led Iraqi National Alliance (INA) won around 70 seats.

The following are some scenarios as Iraqis grapple to come to terms with their tenuous democracy 7-1/2 years after the U.S.-led invasion.



SHI’ITES OVERCOME THEIR DIFFERENCES

At first, it seemed inevitable a Shi’ite mega merger between State of Law and the Iran-friendly INA would sideline the actual vote leader, the Sunni-backed Iraqiya.

But the INA’s main player, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (ISCI), whittled down to a rump of its former influence among majority Shi’ites by Maliki’s growing stature, has been baring its teeth by resolutely opposing his demand for a second term.

Sadr, whose followers have fumed at Maliki since he sent the Iraqi army to crush their Mehdi Army militia in 2008, also declined to back him.

At the end of the day, few expect the Shi’ite majority to sacrifice their unity for personal ambition or over political differences. The power Shi’ites gained after the fall of Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein is simply too precious.

Shi’ite Iran, which exerts considerable influence over many Iraqi Shi’ite leaders after housing them for years when they were exiled under Saddam, is also pushing for a united front.

While Tehran might have misgivings about Maliki, Iranian leaders no doubt prefer him to Allawi, viewed as a secular strongman by his supporters and by Iran as a Shi’ite frontman for Sunni adherents of Saddam’s now outlawed Baath party.

IF NOT MALIKI THEN WHO?

State of Law has agreed to rein in the powers of the prime minister should Maliki be reappointed, a key demand of his foes.

It is also considering demands from Sadr, including the release of Sadrist prisoners and a guarantee of government jobs.

But some demands are not within Maliki’s power to grant. He cannot, for example, lift death sentences imposed by the courts.

ISCI is also furiously insisting State of Law present an alternative candidate, or it might strike a deal with Allawi.

The trouble for Maliki’s Dawa party allies is that he is the politician who won the most votes in the March 7 election, and most Dawa lawmakers owe their parliamentary seats to his popularity. It would be embarrassing to betray him.

Yet, as time drags on, some Dawa insiders have begun to hint that their party’s fate has to take precedence over Maliki’s.

The alternative candidates mentioned are close confidants:

— Ali al-Adeeb: The most senior of the Dawa alternatives, Adeeb does not owe his seat to Maliki, but his credentials are tainted by a widespread belief that he has Iranian nationality.

— Haider al-Abadi: a senior Dawa member, Abadi is an urbane politician with broad respect but owes his seat to Maliki.

— Hussain al-Shahristani: Oil Minister Shahristani is a former Dawa party member. His chances are limited because he is viewed as a technocrat and not a political leader.



MALIKI DOES A DEAL WITH IRAQIYA

Perhaps as a result of the opposition to his ambitions within Shi’ite ranks, Maliki has reached out to Iraqiya, fuelling speculation he might strike a deal with Allawi.

What options are there in this scenario?

— Maliki becomes president and Allawi prime minister. That is Iraqiya’s preference, but it is unlikely to be of interest to Maliki and opposed by Shi’ites who view Allawi as a Sunni in Shi’ite clothing. The Kurds, who are likely to be included in any government, also insist on keeping the presidency.

— Maliki becomes prime minister, and Allawi president. This is also hard to imagine. Sunnis say they would regard Allawi as an honorary Sunni as prime minister, but not if he is president.

— Maliki becomes prime minister, and Iraqiya picks half the government. This scenario is possible, but it hinges on Sunni leaders within Iraqiya sacrificing Allawi or on Allawi sacrificing himself for the benefit of Iraqiya.



ISCI DOES A DEAL WITH IRAQIYA?

Iraqiya insiders say they would prefer to go with Maliki because of the 89 seats that State of Law would bring to the table, adding to Iraqiya’s 91, in the 325-seat parliament.

A deal with ISCI, which has around 20 seats if former armed wing Badr Organisation is included, is also an option.

Under an earlier scenario, the two blocs would divide the prime minister’s post, with Allawi serving two years and ISCI’s Adel Abdul-Mahdi, currently a vice president, the other two.

Few view this arrangement as workable.

More recently, reports have emerged of an offer that would divide government posts between ISCI, Iraqiya and the Kurds, pushing State of Law into opposition in parliament.

Iraqiya would get the prime minister post, ISCI the speakership and a vice president’s post, while the Kurds will keep the presidency and gain two major ministries. The Sadrists would gain one deputy prime minister post covering services. Such a deal seems implausible because the division of spoils is not proportionate. ISCI would gain more than the Sadrists, despite the fact the latter have twice as many seats.



THE PREFERRED U.S. SOLUTION?

Vice President Joe Biden said on a visit to Baghdad that Washington did had no preferred candidate. But U.S. officials say the next government should include all political groups so that all communities feel they have stake in the future as U.S. troops withdraw over the next 18 months, and stop fighting.

Privately, though, many U.S. officials would like to see a solution that excludes the Sadrists from government.

The Sadrists are fiercely opposed to the U.S. presence, and might demand either a speedier pullout or guarantees U.S. forces are not allowed to remain beyond their end-2011 withdrawal date.

They are also viewed as unpredictable and disruptive as legislators and administrators.

Oil majors investing in Iraq’s oilfields may also prefer this solution — the Sadrists are the main critics of contracts the companies signed with the outgoing government. (Editing by Angus MacSwan)



Jul 15, 2010

U.S. hands over last Iraq jail but keeps 200 inmates

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – The U.S. military handed over its last prison in Iraq on Thursday, ending an ignominious chapter of the 2003 U.S. invasion that saw thousands detained without charge and triggered outrage after disclosures of abuse.

At a ceremony in a hangar at Camp Cropper detention center near Baghdad airport, U.S. military officials gave their Iraqi counterparts a giant, symbolic key and said they were confident no prisoner maltreatment would occur under Iraqi supervision.

Jul 1, 2010

Key political risks to watch in Iraq

BAGHDAD, July 1 (Reuters) – Political tensions in Iraq are running high with no new government in sight nearly four months after a March 7 parliamentary election.

While parliament has held its first session, the long delay in agreeing a coalition government could pour fuel on volatile sectarian differences as two large Shi’ite electoral blocs cement a tenuous union and possibly push a Sunni-backed coalition that narrowly won the election to the sidelines.

More delays could thwart U.S. plans to end combat operations in August, although Washington has given no indication it could alter its troop withdrawal schedule.

Iraq, which has the world’s third largest oil reserves, has signed contracts with energy majors such as BP and Lukoil that could more than quadruple oil output in seven years. Those projects are moving ahead, even without a new government.

But Iraq needs to broaden investment to create jobs and battle a still stubborn insurgency.

Investors outside the oil sector remain wary.

Iraq remains largely isolated from world financial markets. Only a short while ago, local banks were so cut off the only way to transfer money across borders was in cash-stuffed bags.

Today, Iraq has little credit. Only a few dozen companies are listed on the local stock market. The Iraqi dinar IQD= is lightly traded. One place to take a punt from afar on Iraq’s future is its Eurobond IQ024029557= XS0240295575=R.

Below are some of the major risks facing Iraq seven years after U.S. troops toppled Saddam Hussein.



POLITICAL SQUABBLING, POWER VACUUM

It took three months to certify the poll results because of challenges, attempts to ban mainly Sunni candidates accused of links to Saddam’s banned Baath party and a recount in Baghdad.

Because no single bloc won a majority in Iraq’s 325-member parliament, coalition talks are key to forming a government.

The Iraqiya bloc led by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shi’ite with wide support among the Sunni minority, took 91 seats in the election, two more than Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s State of Law bloc.

The Iraqi National Alliance, a Shi’ite bloc which includes anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, took 70 seats, while a Kurdish alliance picked up 43.

Sadr’s faction, which wants U.S. troops to leave faster and questions the oil deals, is well-placed to join a government.

Maliki, a Shi’ite who built his reputation on a claim to have rescued Iraq from civil war, is seeking a second term.

But his ambitions are being opposed by some erstwhile Shi’ite allies despite the merger of Iraq’s two main Shi’ite groups into the National Alliance, which is just four seats short of a working majority.

An extended delay in forming a government could undermine security by creating a power vacuum, while marginalising Iraqiya could anger Sunnis, just as U.S. troops prepare to leave.

U.S. President Barack Obama, focused on a growing conflict in Afghanistan, plans to cut U.S. troop numbers in Iraq to 50,000 by September ahead of a full pullout by the end of 2011.

What to watch:

— Sectarian or political violence flares, as it did during the five months it took to form a government after 2005 parliamentary polls.

— Parliament, which cannot function without a government, fails to pass investment legislation already delayed by years of political squabbling, sending a poor signal to firms interested in Iraq but worried about legal risks and an opaque bureaucracy.

A RETURN TO MAJOR VIOLENCE

Iraq is far less violent than when sectarian killings peaked in 2006-07. Maliki takes credit for security gains, but a U.S. troop rise and Sunni militia cooperation also played a big part.

Since March, Iraqi forces backed by U.S. troops have scored major victories against local al Qaeda groups, including the killings on April 18 of al Qaeda’s leader in Iraq, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the purported head of its affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq.

Yet Sunni Islamist insurgents, who the government says are in cahoots with Saddam’s Baath party, still stage big attacks.

A spree of bombings and attacks by gunmen that stretched from Mosul in the north to Basra in the south killed more than 120 people on May 10 and was seen as a warning that insurgents are still a potent force despite battlefield setbacks.

In June, insurgents staged brazen and well orchestrated suicide bomb attacks on the Central Bank of Iraq and the Trade Bank of Iraq, seeking out economic targets in what officials said was an attempt to derail investment.

Political feuds, Sunni discontent or an attack on a holy site or a clerical leader could all spark renewed violence, as could any Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Such an attack might prompt mostly dormant Shi’ite militias to retaliate against U.S. forces in Iraq.

Any major violence will push up prices on global oil markets CLc1, especially if it appears set to persist.

What to watch:

— Attacks on oil facilities or staff. Iraq’s efforts to secure investment could be derailed by attacks on foreigners.

— Signs that U.S. forces are changing withdrawal plans.

— Iraqi security forces are vulnerable to infiltration and some key ministries are still politicised. Iraq’s military still relies on U.S. troops for air support and forensics.

KURD-ARAB CONFLICT

Tensions between Arabs and minority Kurds, who have enjoyed virtual autonomy in their northern enclave for almost 20 years, are festering. Kurds suffered massacres in Saddam’s era, but have gained unprecedented influence since 2003 and hope to reclaim areas they deem historically Kurdish.

Others in disputed areas complain Kurds have exploited their newfound prominence at the expense of Arabs and Turkmen. At the centre of the impasse is Kirkuk, the northern province that sits on an estimated 4 percent of world oil reserves.

What to watch:

— Clashes between the army and Kurdish Peshmerga forces.

— Any breakthrough on oil. Iraqi Kurdistan, which estimates its oil reserves at 45 billion barrels, has signed deals with foreign firms that the Iraqi Oil Ministry labels illegal.

— Any resumed exports from Kurdish fields, halted because of the dispute, would be positive. Iraq’s cabinet approved in May a deal that would allow exports, but they have not resumed.

— Passage of modern oil legislation, held up for years because of the Kurd-Arab feud. The delay has not deterred oil majors, but potential investors in other sectors view the laws as an indicator of stability and friendliness to business.

A NEW AUTHORITARIANISM

Iraq’s democratic experiment is important in a region where leaders often leave office only in a "coffin or coup".

Attempts to overturn Iraqiya’s lead after the vote suggest that a democratic culture is still only skin deep.

Many Iraqis believe their country needs a strong ruler. Western powers would be unlikely to stand by if a military coup installed a leader hostile to their interests.

What to watch:

— Any clearly illegal attempt to change the election result.

— Any constitutional changes that would allow leaders to amass power or remain in office. * For political risks to watch in other countries, please click on [ID:EMEARISK] (Editing by Samia Nakhoul))



Jun 1, 2010

Key political risks to watch in Iraq

BAGHDAD, June 1 (Reuters) – Political tensions in Iraq are
running high with no new government in sight nearly three months
after a March 7 parliamentary election.

While progress has been made toward seating a new
parliament, the long delay could pour fuel on volatile sectarian
differences in Iraq as two large Shi’ite electoral blocs
negotiate the terms of a union, which could push a Sunni-backed
coalition that narrowly won the election to the sidelines.

May 17, 2010

Scenarios: What happens next in Iraq after Baghdad recount?

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – The end of a recount of votes in Baghdad opens the way for Iraq’s March 7 election results to be finally certified more than two months after the ballot, and for coalition-forming talks to begin in earnest.

It does not mean the pace of government formation will necessarily pick up, and the ingredients are still in place for a protracted political vacuum in which sectarian tensions could lead to violence as U.S. troops pack up and start to leave.

May 16, 2010

What happens next in Iraq after Baghdad recount?

BAGHDAD, May 16 (Reuters) – The end of a recount of votes in Baghdad opens the way for Iraq’s March 7 election results to be finally certified more than two months after the ballot, and for coalition-forming talks to begin in earnest.

It does not mean the pace of government formation will necessarily pick up, and the ingredients are still in place for a protracted political vacuum in which sectarian tensions could lead to violence as U.S. troops pack up and start to leave.

The sectarian warfare between once dominant Sunnis and majority Shi’ites that was kicked off after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion has subsided substantially since its peak in 2006/07.

But a string of attacks by a weakened yet still lethal Sunni Islamist insurgency since the ballot has fuelled fears of a slide back into broad bloodshed that could derail U.S. plans to end combat operations in August ahead of a full pullout in 2011.

The following is a glimpse into political negotiations thought to be taking place and a review of possible outcomes.



WHO GETS FIRST CHANCE TO FORM A GOVERNMENT

The recount left intact the two-seat election lead of the cross-sectarian Iraqiya list of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi over the predominantly Shi’ite State of Law bloc of incumbent Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

But Allawi’s chances of forming a government are slim, raising the prospect of anger among minority Sunnis who backed Iraqiya and who see its electoral success as a vindication of their claim to greater clout in post-invasion Iraq.

Instead, a Shi’ite mega tie-up announced between Maliki’s faction and the other main Shi’ite group, the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), has the best chance. They are just four seats short of a governing majority in the new 325-seat parliament.

In theory, the president picked by the next parliament when it sits should give Allawi as the election winner the first shot at trying to form a government and 30 days in which to do so.

The supreme court, though, has already issued an opinion stating that right could also legally be granted to the single biggest bloc in the new parliament.



WHO IS TALKING TO WHOM

In the meantime, State of Law and the INA will be talking to the recently unified Kurdish bloc about what concessions will be needed to bring the Kurds’ 57 or so seats into the fold.

The Kurds want the presidency, a resumption in their oil exports, and commitments on disputed areas like Kirkuk, which the Kurds want wrapped into their semi-autonomous enclave.

Maliki’s envoys will also be talking to members of Iraqiya who might cross the floor if offered a suitably attractive deal, such as a ministry. It will be important to bestow a Sunni tint on an otherwise Shi’ite-Kurdish dominated government.

Among those who might be tempted to desert Allawi could be incumbent Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, a prominent Sunni, or members of former Sunni lawmaker Saleh al-Mutlaq’s list.

Hashemi would bring with him around 9 seats while Mutlaq’s former National Dialogue Front could deliver at least 20. Mutlaq himself was barred from the election because of alleged links to Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein’s outlawed Baath party.

Sunni politician Osama al-Nujaifi, who controls around half of Iraqiya’s 20-odd seats in the violent northern province of Nineveh, may also be willing to deal with State of Law and INA.

The inclusion of a large-enough Sunni bloc may defuse some of the outrage Sunnis will feel at Allawi being sidelined by the Shi’ite factions that have dominated Iraq since Saddam’s fall.



WHAT STILL STANDS IN THE WAY OF A SHI’ITE MEGA-MERGER

The pick of prime minister is a hurdle that could yet defeat the plans to create a Shi’ite mega-faction.

Maliki, the top vote winner in the March election, insists that he be returned to office for a second term.

But he is opposed by the movement of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, which won 39 of INA’s 70 seats and dislikes Maliki for sending troops to crush Sadr’s Mehdi Army militia.

Maliki is viewed with disquiet within the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, which has seen its former dominance of Shi’ite politics whittled away by Maliki’s growing stature.

In addition, the incumbent prime minister is thought to be viewed by Tehran as overly independent. Shi’ite power Iran has been an influential player in Iraq since its Shi’ite majority was propelled into political supremacy by the invasion.

Under the tie-up, State of Law and INA were to create a 14-person committee to decide on a prime ministerial nominee.

The formation of the panel has been stymied by disagreement within the INA as to who should be included in it, and by State of Law opposition to the INA side appointing too many Sadrists.

The committee, once formed, will have a week to endorse a prime minister unanimously. If it fails, it will then vote on a selection. The winning candidate will need 80 percent support. If that also fails, a new mechanism will have to be agreed.



HOW LONG

It could still take months to form a new government.

While the election results will most likely be certified by June, diplomats expect politicians to want a package deal on all remaining issues — prime minister, president and ministries — before the new parliament is allowed to hold its first session.

A popular estimate for a new government is August, just when U.S. troops levels are supposed to go down by half to 50,000.



SPIRAL OF VIOLENCE

When Iraq waited months for a government in 2006, sectarian bloodshed took hold. Some fear history could repeat itself.

But Iraq in 2010 is different to Iraq in 2006.

The 650,000-plus troops and police Iraq now has have proven to be relatively professional, while not flawless, and capable of battling both Sunni insurgents and Shi’ite militia.

Iraqis themselves are tired of war, and less inclined to turn a blind eye to or provide a safe haven for armed groups.

Iraq has also signed 10 deals with global oil firms that could turn it into the world’s No. 2 oil producer.

The allure of booming oil revenues may persuade many who might otherwise take up arms that it would be more profitable to join the government, than to fight it. (Additional reporting by Suadad al-Salhy, Waleed Ibrahim and Muhanad Mohammed; Editing by Charles Dick)



May 11, 2010

Al Qaeda still lethal in Iraq – U.S. general

BAGHDAD, May 11 (Reuters) – A day-long wave of attacks that killed more than 100 people showed al Qaeda retains the power to unleash violence across Iraq, and Iraqi forces must not let down their guard, a senior U.S. general said on Tuesday.

Brig. Gen. Ralph Baker, one of three deputy commanding generals for U.S. forces in central Iraq, said the local Sunni Islamist group’s abilities had been degraded by arrests and the killing of senior operatives, including its top two leaders.

Yet Monday’s onslaught from the volatile city of Mosul in the north to the oil hub of Basra in the south showed "that al Qaeda still possesses a limited ability for command and control across the country", Baker said in an interview.

"This should be a wakeup call to the Iraqi security forces that they can’t rest on their laurels in terms of their recent successes," Baker said.

Insurgents killed at least 125 people after bombing workers at a textile factory in the southern city of Hilla, targeting markets in places like Basra, and attacking checkpoints in Baghdad with silenced guns. More than 600 people were wounded.

The bloodshed came as tensions simmer following a March 7 election that produced no outright winner and ahead of an end to U.S. combat operations in August and full withdrawal next year.

A cross-sectarian alliance led by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shi’ite, won broad support from minority Sunnis to take a two-seat lead in the parliamentary poll.

But Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s bloc and Iraq’s other main Shi’ite alliance have agreed to form a union, a move that could sideline Allawi and anger his Sunni supporters.

Many of Monday’s attacks involved suicide bombers, an al Qaeda hallmark.

The violence was seen as a message from al Qaeda in Iraq that it remained strong despite suffering blows, including an April raid that killed its leader Abu Ayyub al-Masri.

That same raid killed Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the purported head of al Qaeda’s Iraqi affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq, and seized a wealth of information and intelligence.

"I think (the attacks) are a message from al Qaeda that they aren’t defeated. It might be an advertisement effort to recruit as we know they are having trouble recruiting," Baker said.

It was also an attempt to undermine Maliki, and a bid to reignite sectarian violence.

"Relatively speaking, the effectiveness of these incidents will be insignificant," Baker said.

"They won’t reignite sectarian violence, they won’t prevent the government from forming. And based on what we are seeing, they (al Qaeda) are being rejected by the Iraqi population."

Soldiers and police manning Baghdad’s many checkpoints appeared relaxed on Tuesday.

In Basra, a decrepit city surrounded by some of the world’s richest oilfields, security was noticeably tighter. The Shi’ite south, where foreign oil firms are starting to invest heavily, has been relatively peaceful for some time.

"These explosions are aimed at attacking economic activity in the province, especially after the stable security encouraged companies to come and invest in Basra," said Ali Ghanim al-Maliki, head of the security committee of the Basra council. (Additional reporting by Aref Mohammed in Basra and Waleed Ibrahim in Baghdad; editing by Andrew Roche)



May 4, 2010

Key political risks to watch in Iraq

BAGHDAD, May 4 (Reuters) – Political tensions in Iraq are rising as Shi’ite groups try to ensure that a Sunni-backed alliance which came first in a contested election does not get a chance to form the next government.

Those efforts could pour fuel on volatile sectarian differences at a critical time, and could delay by many months the formation of a coalition government after the March 7 vote. That may thwart U.S. plans to end combat operations in August.

Iraq, which has the world’s third largest oil reserves, has signed contracts with energy majors such as Royal Dutch Shell <RDSa.L> and Lukoil <LKOH.MM> that could more than quadruple oil output over the next few years, but it needs to broaden investment to create jobs and battle a still stubborn insurgency.

Investors, understandably, are wary.

Iraq remains largely isolated from world financial markets. Only a short while ago, local banks were so cut off the only way to transfer money across borders was in cash-stuffed bags.

Today, Iraq has little credit. Only a few dozen companies are listed on the local stock market. The Iraqi dinar <IQD=> is lightly traded. One place to take a punt from afar on Iraq’s future is its Eurobond <IQ024029557=> <XS0240295575=R>.

Below are some of the major risks facing Iraq seven years after U.S. troops toppled Saddam Hussein.



POLITICAL SQUABBLING, POWER VACUUM

Because no single bloc won a majority in Iraq’s 325-member parliament, coalition talks are key to forming a government.

The Iraqiya bloc led by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shi’ite with wide support among the Sunni minority, took 91 seats in the election, two more than Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s State of Law bloc, according to preliminary results.

Maliki, a Shi’ite who built his reputation on his claim to have rescued Iraq from civil war, formally challenged the results and a special review panel ordered a recount of 2.5 million votes in the capital which has the potential to overturn Iraqiya’s lead.

In addition, the review panel is considering the fate of votes cast for candidates accused of having links to Saddam Hussein’s outlawed Baath party. Most are from Iraqiya.

The Iraqi National Alliance, a Shi’ite bloc which includes anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, took 70 seats, while a Kurdish alliance picked up 43.

Sadr’s faction, which wants U.S. troops to leave faster and questions the oil deals, is well-placed to join a government.

A major delay in forming a government could undermine security and create a dangerous power vacuum, while marginalising Iraqiya could anger Sunnis, just as U.S. troops accelerate their departure.

U.S. President Barack Obama, focused on a growing conflict in Afghanistan, plans to cut U.S. troop numbers in Iraq to 50,000 by August ahead of a full pullout by the end of 2011.

What to watch:

— Sectarian or political violence flares, as it did during the five months it took to form a government after 2005 parliamentary polls. While this may not derail oil investment, it could scare away potential investors in other sectors.

— Parliament, which cannot function without a government, fails to pass investment legislation already delayed by years of political squabbling, sending a poor signal to firms interested in Iraq but worried about legal risks and an opaque bureaucracy.



A RETURN TO MAJOR VIOLENCE

Iraq is far less violent than when sectarian killings peaked in 2006-07. Maliki takes credit for security gains, but a U.S. troop rise and Sunni militia cooperation also played a big part.

Since March, Iraqi forces backed by U.S. troops have scored major victories against local al Qaeda groups, including the killings on April 18 of al Qaeda’s leader in Iraq, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the purported head of its affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq.

Yet Sunni Islamist insurgents, who the government says are in cahoots with Saddam’s Baath party, can still stage devastating attacks on government ministries and public buildings.

Political feuds, Sunni discontent or an attack on a holy site or a clerical leader could all spark renewed violence, as could any Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Such an attack might prompt mostly dormant Shi’ite militias to retaliate against U.S. forces in Iraq.

Any major violence will push up prices on global oil markets <CLc1>, especially if it appears set to persist.

What to watch:

— Attacks on oil facilities or staff. Iraq’s efforts to secure investment could be derailed by attacks on foreigners.

— Signs that U.S. forces are changing withdrawal plans.

— Iraqi security forces are vulnerable to infiltration and some key ministries are still politicised. Iraq’s military still relies on U.S. troops for air support, logistics and forensic investigation.



KURD-ARAB CONFLICT

Tensions between Arabs and minority Kurds, who have enjoyed virtual autonomy in their northern enclave for almost 20 years, are festering. Kurds suffered massacres in Saddam’s era, but have gained unprecedented influence since 2003 and hope to reclaim areas they deem historically Kurdish.

Others in disputed areas complain Kurds have exploited their newfound prominence at the expense of Arabs and Turkmen. At the centre of the impasse is Kirkuk, the northern province that sits on an estimated 4 percent of world oil reserves.

What to watch:

— Confrontation between the Iraqi army and Kurdish Peshmerga forces.

— Any breakthrough on oil. Iraqi Kurdistan, which estimates its oil reserves at 45 billion barrels, has signed deals with foreign firms that the Iraqi Oil Ministry labels illegal.

— Any resumed exports from Kurdish fields, halted because of that dispute, would be positive. Officials in Kurdistan and Baghdad hint at detente.

— Passage of modern oil legislation, held up for years because of the Kurd-Arab feud.

The delay has not deterred oil majors from signing deals, but potential investors in other sectors view the legislation as an indicator of Iraq’s stability and friendliness to business.



A NEW AUTHORITARIANISM

Iraq’s democratic experiment is important in a region where leaders often lose power only in a "coffin or coup".

The attempt to overturn Iraqiya’s lead after the vote suggest that a democratic culture is still only skindeep.

Many Iraqis believe their country needs a strong ruler. Western powers would be unlikely to stand by if a military coup installed a leader hostile to their interests.

What to watch:

— Any clearly illegal attempt to change the election result. So far all the steps have followed what on the surface appear to be legal procedures.

— Any constitutional changes that would allow leaders to amass power or remain in office. (Editing by Samia Nakhoul)



Apr 28, 2010

Rape was norm at illegal Iraq prison – rights group

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Torture, beating and sodomising inmates with brooms or pistol barrels were the norm at an illegal prison run by a military unit under the command of the Iraqi prime minister’s office, Human Rights Watch said.

The rights group Wednesday called for a thorough investigation over the detention centre, which was discovered and closed down this month by Iraq’s Human Rights Ministry, and urged Iraq to prosecute those responsible.

Apr 28, 2010

Torture, rape was norm at illegal Iraq prison: report

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Torture, beating and sodomizing inmates with brooms or pistol barrels were the norm at an illegal prison run by a military unit under the command of the Iraqi prime minister’s office, Human Rights Watch said.

The rights group on Wednesday called for a thorough investigation over the detention center, which was discovered and closed down this month by Iraq’s Human Rights Ministry, and urged Iraq to prosecute those responsible.