The Middle East Channel

Iraqis Head to Polls Amid Heavy Security

Iraqis are heading to the polls amid heavy security in the first parliamentary elections since the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. troops. Iraq has seen the worst violence since 2008, with 160 people killed in attacks within the last week. As polls opened Wednesday, two roadside bombs exploded near Kirkuk killing two women and a bombing at a market northeast of Baghdad killed at least 11 people. The capital is under lockdown, and cars have been banned during the voting in efforts to prevent suicide attacks and car bombers. Polling stations in much of Anbar province were closed on Wednesday. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is seeking a third term and his Shiite State of Law list is expected to win the most seats in parliament. However, growing unrest will pose a challenge to Maliki and he is unlikely to take enough seats to avoid needing to establish a coalition.

Syria

Jordan and the United Nations have opened up a new camp for refugees fleeing Syria's civil war. The Azraq camp has the infrastructure to house 50,000 people, but has been designed to expand to hold 130,000 refugees. Zaatari camp is currently Jordan's biggest and has reached capacity at a population of 100,000. Zaatari has been strongly criticized for its poor conditions, and Jack Byrne from the International Rescue Committee said Azraq was built taking into account lessons from Zaatari. Meanwhile the death toll has risen from bomb, mortar, and rocket attacks on government-held areas of Damascus and Homs on Tuesday, with estimates ranging from 50 to 100 people killed. In a statement at The Hague Tuesday the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons announced it will send a team to investigate claims that chlorine gas has been used in attacks in Syria at least nine times since February.  

Headlines

  • U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy has blocked military aid to Egypt criticizing the administration's intention to release $650 million in assistance considering an Egyptian court's recent issuing of 720 death sentences.
  • With the end of peace talks, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is considering unilateral moves such as annexing parts of the West Bank while the PLO may seek to join the ICC.
  • Lebanese speaker Nabih Berri adjourned the second round of the presidential election after lawmakers boycotted and scheduled the third round for May 7.
  • Gunmen attacked Libya's parliament Tuesday causing several injuries and forcing lawmakers to suspend a vote on a new prime minister.

Arguments and Analysis

'Palestinian-Israeli Talks: Time for a "Time Out"' (Shai Feldman, The National Interest)

"What are the key mistakes that should be discussed at the retreat? First, Kerry should not have permitted Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to engage him in endless discussions regarding the conditions for negotiations. Kerry should have told the two leaders:

Gentlemen, if you want peace, the United States is prepared to facilitate. If you reach an agreement, issues like a settlement-construction freeze and release of prisoners will be taken care of. Prisoners will be released and construction will cease in whatever settlements will find themselves located on the Palestinian side of the negotiated boundary. But the world presents the United States with too many important challenges for us to be engaged in negotiating precursors to negotiations. So make up your mind: If you want peace, we need to focus on border demarcation, security, Jerusalem, refugees, and water resources. Not on your conditions for negotiating these issues."

'Syria: Pull Together Resources, Rationalize the Response' (Frederic C. Hof, Atlantic Council)

"The key obstacle, therefore, to the proposition that the United States should pull together the resources and rationalize the response to the depredations of the Assad regime may be entirely internal. How, after all, would such a labor-intensive, complicated, contentious, and lengthy process be managed and controlled by the president and his staff? When the inevitable problems arise and reverses occur, who-with everything else going on-will massage and manage the media message? Who would have the requisite combination of leadership skills, area expertise, operational experience, and presidential trust to lead such a complex and difficult effort? Where would the White House inner circle find the time to review everything down to punctuation in planning documentation that would first be required to run a gauntlet of skeptical lawyers primed to find fault and eliminate risk? Is there, in short, anything about Syria worth the political risks and managerial burdens of doing something big?"

-- Mary Casey

SABAH ARAR/AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Insecurity Threatens Iraqi Parliamentary Elections

Iraq faces increased security concerns as violence threatens the first countrywide elections since the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. forces. Several bombings targeted poling stations killing at least 62 people on Monday as army and security personnel cast early votes ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled to begin Wednesday. On Tuesday, two bombings at a market northeast of Baghdad killed at least 10 people. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been expected to win a third term. However, the rising level of violence, the worst seen since 2008, is undermining Maliki's reputation as the man who restored a degree of normality to Baghdad. The prime minister will face several key competitors including Osama al-Nujaifi, Ali al-Sistani, Moqtada al-Sadr, and Massud Barzani.

Syria

Mortar strikes hit a school in the mainly Shiite district of Shaghour in Damascus Tuesday, killing at least 14 people and wounding dozens of others. Syrian state news agency SANA reported four strikes killed 14 people and injured 86 others, while the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 17 people died. In the city of Homs, explosions, including at least one car bomb, killed at least 37 people and wounded more than 80 others. Meanwhile, 35 international legal experts sent a letter to the United Nations urging humanitarian agencies to ignore "arbitrary" government restrictions and deliver aid to Syrians with or without the government's consent. The group said hundreds of thousands of lives are at risk because of the United Nations' "overly cautious legal interpretation" on the relief operation.

Headlines

  • U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry backed off remarks that Israel risked becoming an "apartheid state" meanwhile the deadline for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks expired with no agreement.
  • Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is seeking the extradition from the United States of rival Fethullah Gulen, accusing him of plotting to topple the government.
  • A suicide car bomber killed at least two soldiers at an army barracks in Libya's eastern city of Benghazi Tuesday.
  • Qatari-owned broadcaster Al Jazeera is suing Egypt for $150 million claiming its investments have been damaged in a crackdown on journalists.
  • Yemen is calling for international assistance in tackling economic and political crises meanwhile the army launched an offensive against al Qaeda fighters in the south.

Arguments and Analysis

'Iraq's New Politics' (Reidar Visser, Foreign Affairs)

"As Iraq readies for general elections at the end of this month, sectarian tensions hang over the country, just as in elections past. But this time, there is a twist: despite the population's deep divides, Iraqi politics have refused to play by the old sectarian rules. In fact, most long-standing ethno-sectarian parties have fractured and, in some cases, key political issues are starting to cut across religious identities. As a result, the election will likely have no clear winner, and only the subsequent struggle to form a new cabinet will reveal which way Iraq is really headed in the coming years."

'Tensions in the Saudi-American Relationship' (F. Gregory Gause, III, Brookings)

"President Obama's visit to Saudi Arabia in March 2014 seems to have alleviated, at least for the time being, the sense that the relationship was 'in crisis.' And that sense of crisis, fostered more by the Saudis than the Americans, was always overblown. Riyadh and Washington have survived far worse periods of friction in their relationship, such as during the 1973-74 oil embargo and in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. All sorts of interests continue to tie the two unlikely allies together, from counterterrorism cooperation to containing Iranian regional influence. Most importantly, there is a strong sense on both sides that, no matter how uncomfortable each is with the other, neither has a better alternative partner."

'Political Executions in Egypt' (The Editorial Board, The New York Times)

"An out-of-control government in Egypt has now sentenced more than 680 people to death in a mass trial that lasted a few minutes and is part of an organized effort not just to crush its political opponents but to eliminate them. Last month, a court delivered a similar sentence on 529 others. The sentences further demonstrate that the military-led government's ruthless disregard for the law and its contrary political views go far beyond anything that former President Mohamed Morsi was accused of doing when he was deposed by the army in July.

And what did the Obama administration have to say about this travesty, which will further fuel hostility and division in one of the Arab world's most important countries? 'The United States is deeply troubled,' the office of the press secretary said in a shockingly weak statement. There was no indication that the administration would reconsider last week's decision to provide the Egyptians with 10 Apache helicopters and more than $650 million in aid."

-- Mary Casey

AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images