Crisis not over
While the vote recount has left the results of March's Iraqi elections intact, this may not mean that the crisis in the country's government is over, writes Salah Hemeid
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Iraqis inspect damages at the site of a car bomb blast outside a café in Baghdad's Shia district of Sadr City
The results of a recount of the votes cast in Iraq's 7 March parliamentary elections, which were released on Sunday, did not change the allocation of seats in the country's new parliament, leaving the two main challengers, Shia prime minister, Nuri Al-Maliki and former prime minister, Iyad Allawi, at loggerheads over who should form the next government.
Al-Maliki's State of Law bloc had demanded a recount of the votes cast in Baghdad, alleging fraud in favour of rival Allawi's Iraqiya List. Election officials said the recount of some 2.5 million votes had left Iraqiya's two-seat lead intact.
With the recount over, the country's highest court can now begin the process of ratifying the results, a crucial step in opening the way for negotiations over who will be the country's next prime minister.
The mainly Sunni Iraqiya list won 91 seats in the March vote, edging out the mainly Shia State of Law bloc, which won 89 seats.
In theory, the outcome could give Allawi's Iraqiya List a boost in its claim of the right to form Iraq's next government. However, in practice Iraq still has a hung parliament, and the different groups will now be able to avoid a deepening crisis only by wheeling and dealing to forge a consensus.
Although Allawi, a Shia supported heavily by Iraq's minority Sunnis, still insists that his bloc's winning of the election should give him the right to form a new government, the country's constitution states that the government should be formed by the bloc which has the largest number of seats in the 325-member parliament.
Amid a sense that Iraq's second parliamentary elections in the post-Saddam era is reshaping the country's future around either a sectarian or a secular kind of government, the struggle to form a new government is expected to mount before Iraq's rivals are able to produce a governing coalition or let the country slip into chaos.
Al-Maliki's bloc has already announced an alliance with the Shia Iraqi National Alliance, which came third in the elections with 70 seats, to form the largest grouping in parliament.
The new alliance was widely expected, as the Shias had fought the elections primarily to maintain their grip on their newly acquired power in Iraq.
On Saturday, Al-Maliki took a major step towards staying in power when Muqtada Al-Sadr, a top Shia cleric, said he had dropped his veto against the prime minister seeking a new term in office. The move, a powerful display of Shia camaraderie, effectively eliminated the biggest hurdle impeding Al-Maliki's chances of remaining in office.
The Shia-dominated alliance could now push Allawi to the sidelines, a move that would anger Sunnis who supported the Iraqiya List and raises concerns about a potential revival of sectarian conflict in the country as us troops prepare to end combat operations in Iraq by 1 September.
After the last parliamentary elections in Iraq in 2005, violence erupted when politicians took more than five months to form a new government. Today, there are increasing fears that the bill for the government crisis might soon come due as the stalemate persists.
Attacks by suspected Sunni Islamist insurgents have killed scores of people in the country in the 10 weeks since the vote took place, including at least 125 in a wave of bombings and shootings across Iraq last week.
Allawi, who has repeatedly insisted on his right to form the new government, warned in an interview this week that "if violence continues then civil war looms".
" I really don't know how it will end," he said. "but what I know is that we are not going to accept that the will of the Iraqi people is going to be confiscated."
On Sunday, the Al-Qaeda organisation in Iraq, which has been blamed for most of the post-election attacks, named new leaders to replace those killed in a US- Iraqi operation. The group also said that it would not stop its attacks until an Islamic state had been established in Iraq.
Al-Maliki has also faced another challenge, this time from outside Iraq, when former Saudi Intelligence Chief Prince Turki Al-Faisal this week accused Al-Maliki of trying to "hijack" the results of Iraq's March elections.
In surprisingly sharp comments, Al-Faisal warned that "the consequences of that will be more bloodshed and potential civil war," Saudi Arabia, a key Muslim Sunni nation, wanting to knock a dent in what it sees as the Iraqi Shias' monopoly on power in Iraq.
Murder in Kurdistan
Last week's brutal murder of a Kurdish writer has revealed a corrupt police state in Iraqi Kurdistan, reports Salah Hemeid. Sardasht Othman, a young Kurdish writer, was snatched in broad daylight by unidentified men in a white minibus immediately after having been dropped off at Salaheddin University in Irbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, where he is studying English.
Four days later, Othman's handcuffed and bullet-ridden body was found. His assailants had been able to take him from the bustling capital of the Kurdish region, through countless security checkpoints, and then to the volatile province of Mosul where they dumped his body.
What makes the abduction and later murder of Othman so stunning is the fact that it happened under the noses of dozens of security guards at the gate of Salaheddin University, supposedly there to protect the students.
Instead, the guards, well-trained Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers and agents of Masoud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party's (KDP) security and intelligence apparatus, apparently watched the kidnapping take place without lifting a finger to stop it.
Othman, 23, was a freelance reporter for the newspaper Ashtinam and also a regular contributor to various independent web news sites. While his murder could have been just another tragedy if it had taken place anywhere else in violence-torn Iraq, the brutal killing has shocked the Kurds in particular and has drawn renewed attention to long-standing allegations of abuse in the media.
Othman had been critical of the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party and of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan for their use of patronage, heavy-handed rule and corruption, all things that have plagued Kurdistan since the region gained a measure of autonomy after the 1991 Gulf War.
Othman might have been considered to have crossed various red lines by publishing articles critical of the Kurdish government, which officials might have considered to be offensive.
In a recent satirical article, for example, Othman wrote of his desire to marry Barzani's daughter, focussing on this as a way of rising from a poor background.
After publishing this article, Othman faced intimidation and received death threats. His brother, Bashdar, later said he was convinced that Sardasht had been killed because of the article, which his brother had published in the independent daily Ashtinam in April.
Since Othman's death, there have been nearly a dozen demonstrations in Iraq's Kurdish autonomous region calling for his killers to be brought to justice.
Recognising the importance of the issue and the potential it has to trigger greater protests if not dealt with, the Kurdish regional government has denied any involvement in Othman's murder, saying that it will establish a commission to investigate the circumstances of his killing.
Nevertheless, the finger of blame is being pointed at the KDP, which controls the regional government's security services. The operation to kill Othman was audacious, and it would have required sophisticated planning and trained attackers.
Kurdistan security forces are often accused of intimidating, threatening and assaulting journalists affiliated with the opposition parties or critical of the patronage system fostered by the two governing parties.
Many will also argue that Othman's accusations against the Kurdish government are not unfounded. Residents in the Kurdish region say that it is impossible to voice dissent against the leaders of the two ruling parties or their relatives, who are said to have profited from lucrative business deals.
Government corruption is widely felt to be endemic, leaving many Kurds feeling helpless and in a state of disbelief that this is supposed to be the new democratic Iraq. There are also few signs that the harsh government that ruled during the period of Saddam Hussein has given way to anything better.
Although Arab Iraqi writers have heaped criticism on the Kurdish administration for its lack of transparency in dealing with Othman's killing, the government in Baghdad has kept silent, apparently preferring not to annoy its Kurdish partners.