Obama's Iraqi Road Bump

The relative calm in Iraq and the departure of George Bush from the White House may make it seem like Iraq is history, but ten days is a long time in politics.

President Obama has been in office for ten days proper as he faces the first of a long litany of Middle East elections. Uncertainty is the only certainty for the new president when Iraqis go to the polls today for local elections.

Iraq, such an issue of political contention in the early days of the 2008 election, was only a footnote in Obama's inaugural address. He noted that "power alone cannot protect us, not does it entitle us to do as we please", which is as realist as few on the inability of his predecessor to transform Iraq into a beacon of democracy.

The new president then stated that "we will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people". This could represent a departure from the previous administration which had supposedly handed the keys of sovereignty back to Iraq in 2004 and then moved further to stage right when the Green Zone was handed to the Iraqis earlier this month.

The Independent reported that Obama will look to increase the pace of the US exit from Iraq, instructing the Pentagon to draw up plans for the orderly withdrawal in 16 months. This would keep significant US troop numbers in Iraq until May 2010. This speeds up on the Bush administration's 'State of Forces Agreement' (SOFA) with the Iraqi government by 19 months. As Article 24 of the SOFA stated that "all U.S. forces are to withdraw from all Iraqi territory, water and airspace no later than the 31st of December of 2011".

This upping of the tempo would highlight Obama's willingness to take charge of the Iraq withdrawal rather than let the SOFA and the will of two of its still incumbent architects - Petraeus and Gates - run its course. Critics of this action will argue that there was no need to up the tempo in this year of transition, with levels of sectarian violence down 98% from mid-2006.

However the local elections to be held in Iraq today may put a spanner in the works. Unlike the initial sets of elections which were totally and then partially boycotted by the Sunnis - the impending US departure sees most elements of the new Iraq competing for power.

The battle lines of the elections are largely between sectarian and tribal groupings and between the centralists and the federalists.

Anthony Shadid summarised the upcoming elections as characterised as the redefinition of "the constellation of power in a country in transition, contested by thousands of candidates on hundreds of lists, some represented by a single person."

The Sunni Accordance Front suffered a serious splinter on Christmas Eve when 10 members of the Iraqi Islamic Party left what is the largest Sunni Bloc (http://www.reuters.com/article/featuredCrisis/idUSLO271035). In what is expected to be the largest Sunni electoral turnout since 2003 - tribal grouping affiliated with the devolved 'Sons of Iraq' programme may do well although there is no guarantee if they will support their nominal patron (certainly financially) Maliki or not.

There are also problems under the huge political tent that is the Shi'a United Iraqi Alliance (UIA). The nationalist Sadrists have traditionally supported a stronger central state with their role guaranteed within it, these elections may show if Maliki's military offensives in Basra and Sadr City were targeting rogue elements of Sadr's base or the cleric himself.

Meanwhile the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq (SICI) continues to push for a southern supra-region based around Basra. This debate over devolution of central government power seems to hinge as ever on the re-born Prime Minister Maliki. With rumours of coup attempts in the air, Maliki is attempting to focus power in his office. Sunni Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi accused Maliki of trying to change the Iraqi constitution in order to effect a 'power grab'. The New York Times reported that Maliki is trying to form tribal councils that are directly funded from his office circumnavigating his Da'wa party's lack of a militia in the face of the well armed Shi'a Sadrists and Badr Brigade.

The crucial question beyond the political intrigue inherent in these elections is whether the institutions and systems of politics can cope with the pressure put on them. If the political system fails then politics will transfer to the streets more often than not in a violent manner. For Obama's smooth exit from Iraq he must hope the system can cope otherwise he may be forced to alter his plans.