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Inertia in Iraq

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The results of the Iraqi elections at the end of last month deepened a sense of conspiracy and dangerous inertia in the country. Events over the last few weeks, since the results were announced, show that this disillusionment is threatening to reverse the security gains of the previous two years.

Following the election result, multiple bomb attacks have struck Baghdad killing 30 and wounding over 224. While Baghdad has grown used to large scale bombings that target markets, religious sites or pilgrimages, government ministries and security infrastructure, these bombings have targeted the Iranian, Syrian and Egyptian Embassies.

Foreign minister Zebari described them as a "political attack" and blamed Al Qaeda, the standard and easy option for Iraq's beleaguered politicians. Prime Minister Maliki in particular has struggled to justify his coalition's claim for credit in reducing violence in the face of such targeted attacks against highly defended targets.

However rather than driven by the anarchical Al Qaeda it is instead likely that elements of the Sunni insurgency are responsible. The insurgency has never operated in a regional vacuum but rather is connected to all six neighboring states in a myriad of ways. In return Iraq's neighbors have all been involved in staking out their interests in the 'new Iraq'.

High level state penetration into a weak state entity is nothing new in the Middle East, nearby Lebanon provides a powerful metaphor for a fragmented state all too often at the whims of its neighboring patrons.

Following the embassy bombings Maliki accused the neighbors of meddling in Iraqi affairs, warning them that "our message is clear: do not interfere in our affairs". Maliki, without naming these countries, explained that they see themselves as 'Guardians' of Iraq -- something the partially sovereign Baghdad government rejects.

Regional support to the Sunni insurgency has evolved since the US decision to co-opt the 70,000 'sons of Iraq'. Complex splits within the Sunni community are violently flourishing in the political vacuum created by the inconclusive elections - hence the likely targeting of former allies.

Finding a place for the Sunnis in the 'new Iraq' is a key challenge to ensuring stability in the country. Although Iyad Allawi's Iraq Bloc (voted for by the majority of Sunnis) won the largest share of parliamentary seats, it seems doubtful that the two major Shi'a coalitions will allow him to put together a viable governing coalition.

Will Iraq's Sunni neighbours - especially Saudi Arabia - be happy if Allawi is cast out into the opposition, or will Iran reject any Allawi-led coalition considering his personal enmity towards the regime in Tehran?

Iraq's political elite may look instead to form a coalition of national unity that brings all factions into the government. Although this option sounds attractive it virtually guarantees parliamentary inertia - which is not the formula for delivering public services to the Iraqi people and making decisions on the key issues of federalism, reform of the constitution and the oil law.

The attacks on the embassies are a reminder that deeply divided Iraqi political institutions are heavily penetrated by influence beyond their borders. Following the Iraqi national elections in December 2005 it took 156 days for a government to be formed. Unless all the factions inside and outside of Iraq can agree it may take even longer this time round.