Iraq Election Delays Threaten U.S. Troop Withdrawal

The deadlock over Iraq's election law is threatening to become a full-blown crisis. Without a deal by this weekend, Iraq will run out of time to organize an election before the government's term expires. A long delay might even trip up the pace of American troop withdrawal.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

One of the paths out of Iraq for American troops is for Iraq to put an elected government in place. And the next election is being threatened because the parliament can't seem to pass an election law. If it doesn't make a deal by this weekend, Iraq will run out of time to organize an election before Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's term expires.

In past years, American diplomats in Baghdad had a heavy hand in shaping Iraqi politics. This time, the Americans have been much more hands off. Here to talk about the American role is NPR's Baghdad bureau chief Quil Lawrence.

Good morning.

QUIL LAWRENCE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: What, Quil, is at stake with the delay over this election law?

LAWRENCE: Well, as you say, the Iraqi prime minister and his government's term run out on January 31st. So the election commission here has said they need 90 days to organize a legitimate poll. And parliament is deadlocked over a dozen or so complicated issues regarding the election. They may vote on it today.

If the elections are delayed or if they're rushed, there's a risk that Iraq's government could be deemed illegitimate, and then a whole Pandora's Box of problems can open up, issues of legitimacy of the government, maybe even a crisis like we've seen in Afghanistan.

And one big question is whether the U.S. has done enough to push it through, especially since their plan to pull out 70,000 troops by August can't really start until the elections are done.

MONTAGNE: Well, you know, six years on the ground in Baghdad, hasn't the American embassy there worked up a fair amount of what you might call institutional knowledge regarding Iraqi politics?

LAWRENCE: Well, the problem is that it took the Obama administration four months to get an ambassador confirmed and out here. And it's taken that ambassador another couple of months to assemble a new political team. So he's got a good number of people with expertise in the region, a good number of Arabic speakers, but they've never been to Iraq before, many of them. So before they can have much influence, they need to learn who the players are and build these personal relationships with them. And that can take months or years.

MONTAGNE: Although, haven't American diplomats been, in a sense, pressing the flesh at the parliament?

LAWRENCE: There's been as many as six of them at a time over at the parliament. But it's sometimes curious who they're meeting with or not meeting with on the Iraqi side. And, like I said, they're just getting up to speed, so it's possibly they could walk right past a very important Iraqi politician in the halls of parliament and not even know him by face.

MONTAGNE: And what about Ambassador Chris Hill's role in this?

LAWRENCE: Ambassador Hill is a stark change from his two immediate predecessors. Both of them had been working on Iraq in the U.S. government since at least 1991. But Hill points out that he's now running an embassy in a sovereign Iraqi state. In the past, during negotiations - for example, in 2005 on the Iraqi constitution - the U.S. embassy just about locked the Iraqi leaders into a room all night until they made a deal. And the U.S. really can't do that here now. Hill has said he intends to do much more listening than talking.

But he's also been called home to Washington quite frequently. I can count at least four week-long trips to Washington during his six months here. And the most surprising one was last week, after the Iraqi parliament had missed its deadline to pass this election law and some people expected the embassy to really be putting on the pressure. And Hill went to Washington along with the Iraqi prime minister for an investment conference when many people thought that he would be sticking around to try and push the law through.

MONTAGNE: And in all of this, what are Iraqi politicians saying?

LAWRENCE: Well, some are quite pleased that the Americans are using less of a heavy hand. They think that Iraq's institutions have become sort of too dependent on American help. It's well-known the government of Nouri al-Maliki has really been asserting its sovereignty. Others say that while there's going to be outside influence in Iraq, in any case, it'll either be Iranian or Saudi or American, and some Iraqi politicians feel that American influence might be the most benign.

MONTAGNE: Quil, thanks very much.

LAWRENCE: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Quil Lawrence, speaking to us from Baghdad.

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MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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