As the next national elections approach, officially scheduled for April 30, 2014, Iraq finds itself embroiled in another political and military impasse similar to those of 2004 and the sectarian bloodshed of 2006. In December 2013, the brutal evacuation of a protest camp near Ramadi under the orders of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki triggered a new standoff between Sunni demonstrators and insurgents and the central government. This episode was skillfully exploited by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) as it was seeking to regain control over the western province of Anbar. In January, the Salafi-jihadi organization launched a series of coordinated attacks, including an assault on Fallujah, which has now turned into a crucible of anti-government sentiment. Maliki launched an all-out offensive on the restive Anbar province. Ever since, violent incidents have been taking place on a daily basis. Yet, and perhaps because of these difficult circumstances, Maliki seems set to win a third term. 

Such developments are a reminder, if one is needed, of Iraq’s extremely fragile trajectory more than two years after the final American military drawdown. In 2013, the country saw its highest death toll since 2008 according to United Nations, with nearly 9,000 killed. Beyond chronic violence, a number of questions pertaining to Iraq’s identity, its new political arena, and the pillars of its socioeconomic reconstruction remain unresolved. The enduring alienation of the Sunni population, which is still a fundamental point of contention, has worsened in the past few years due to Maliki’s overtly sectarian rhetoric and policies, as well as his targeted maneuvers against Sunni politicians. The Sunnis, in general, continue to demand their full institutional reintegration and denounce their oppression at the hands of the Iraqi army and security forces. 

Overall, the political process has proved persistently unable to produce any kind of agreement, not even to set up mechanisms for dialogue, compromise, and conflict resolution between various stakeholders. The population shows fatigue, disaffection, and disinterest in politics and the next legislative polls in particular. So far, each election, which was supposed to consolidate democracy and bring well-being, has been marred with sectarian violence and instability. This has led to an ever-growing estrangement of the Sunnis, a pattern that the coming April elections, if maintained, are unlikely to change. Besides, continued de-Baathification, the banning of dozens of candidates on alleged crimes (including homosexuality), and the complex bargaining around government formation are all factors that have contributed to discrediting the electoral system and the new political order as a whole.

Voting procedures themselves have become heavily contested between rival actors, as illustrated in 2013 by the prolonged deadlock around the adoption of a new electoral law that replaced the one declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2010. This legislation, passed last November, increased the number of parliamentary seats from 325 to 328 and changed the method of their distribution in favor of smaller parties, so far marginalized by broader coalitions. This will allow for wider parliamentary representation, in particular of minorities and provinces. While the open-list system was kept, the idea of one single-district electoral constituency, used in the 2005 elections and which the Kurds had called for, was dropped in contrast.

Against this backdrop, the Sunni reaction—both peaceful and armed—is portrayed by its leaders as the last safeguard against Iraq’s return to full-blown authoritarianism if Maliki wins a third term. However, the Sunnis lack a united leadership and vision. Maliki has succeeded in exploiting their divisions to thwart political remobilization and prevent the emergence of a new, strong, Sunni coalition on the model of the Iraqiyya list in 2010. The prime minister has also managed to attract a number of Sunni sheikhs, some of whom used to belong to the tribal Sahwa movement in 2007, to fight ISIS and insurgents alongside the army and security forces. With the end of the large blocs that characterized the past elections, his Da‘wa party is now among the chief competitors; a position that does not weigh in favor of softened tone and action on the prime minister’s part, but rather more repression and autocratic rule if he is to be re-elected. Such a scenario would, no doubt increase resentment toward Maliki’s government.

Maliki may be the primary reason for the radicalization of the Sunnis and growing sectarian reflexes, but the Anbar standoff is not likely to weaken him electorally. Indeed, renewed violence over the last three months, the absence of Sunni unity (some tribes are even calling for a boycott of the elections), and the fragmentation of the Shia political landscape (Moqtada al-Sadr announced his withdrawal from politics in February) all create favorable conditions for another term for Maliki. This will be even more the case if the elections are marked by low turnout from the Sunnis because of their disillusionment with the transition. In a context of security vacuum, Maliki depicts himself as the only viable and legitimate leader for the country, the “strong man” that Iraqis need. During his visit to Washington in January, parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, himself a Sunni, emphasized how deteriorating security conditions will likely be used by the Prime Minister to postpone the elections in some provinces (voter ID cards have not yet been distributed by the electoral commission in Anbar) and further sideline the Sunnis while ensuring his re-election. 

Obviously, the instability borne out of the 2011 Arab uprisings and the spilling of the Syrian crisis into Iraq also exacerbate the logic of violence. In addition to ISIS and its armed operations in the west and the north of the country, as well as in Baghdad, several Iraqi Shia militias, such as Iranian-backed Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (a group that broke away from al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army), Kata’ib Hezbollah, and the Badr Organization, have been fighting in Syria in support of the Assad regime. These militias have begun to remobilize inside Iraq and are said to have infiltrated the security forces. While their first targets remain the Salafi-jihadi groups, they have also been responsible for a series of attacks against Sunni civilian populations, which raises risks of a new and all-out sectarian conflict.

In an interview given to France 24 on March 8, Maliki declared that Saudi Arabia and Qatar were at war with Iraq by inciting Sunni terrorism against his government and providing political, financial, and media support to Sunni combatants. Such a statement can only inflame existing tensions, both domestic and regional. The Saudi kingdom responded by slamming these accusations as “aggressive and irresponsible,” while the United Arab Emirates condemned Maliki’s words and summoned his ambassador. Meanwhile, the United States has accelerated the delivery of missiles and drones to the Iraqi armed forces. Regardless of whether the April elections take place on time or will be delayed, the use of force will not resolve the current stalemate. In mid-February, as a goodwill gesture, Maliki met with leaders and tribes in Anbar and pledged $83 million for the province’s development. Yet this visit was not enough, and the fighting continues between ISIS, local tribes, and the government. Beyond words, tangible action is needed; any form of sustainable progress would first and foremost require an effective political rehabilitation of the Sunnis.

Myriam Benraad is a Middle East and Iraq Specialist at Sciences Po Paris and a Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).