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 The main issues facing Iraq's next government

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The main issues facing Iraq's next government  24.2.2010 

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February 24, 2010

BAGHDAD, Iraqis vote in an election on March 7 seen as a test of Iraq's young and tenuous democracy, its ability to provide security, and the prospects for reconciliation between warring factions after years of violence.

The next government faces a raft of thorny issues that have at times paralysed the previous administration, delayed vital legislation and raised tensions even as the sectarian bloodshed triggered by the 2003 U.S. invasion subsides.

Following are the main issues facing Iraq's next government:

KURD-ARAB TIES

Iraq's Arab majority and Kurdish minority have long-running, bitter disputes over land, oil and constitutional rights that have threatened to spill over into violence and which U.S. officials fear could spark Iraq's next major conflict.

The next government will have to find a solution for the disputed oil-producing city of Kirkuk, which Kurds consider their ancestral homeland and want to wrap into their largely autonomous Kurdistan region in northern Iraq.

The city's Arabs and ethnic Turkmen are alarmed at the prospect of being ruled by Kurds,
www.ekurd.netwho have many friends in western capitals due to years of successful lobbying and growing business relations, including in oil.

An Iraq-wide census, the first in 23 years, is planned for October, which will add ammunition to either Kurdish or Arab arguments for control of Kirkuk.

Other disputed areas border the violent city of Mosul, where deadlock between local Kurd and Arab politicians has resulted in a security vacuum that has been exploited by al Qaeda, which is still effective there despite crackdowns elsewhere in Iraq.

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is also at loggerheads with Baghdad over the legality of contracts the KRG signed independently with foreign oil firms, a dispute that resulted in the halting of oil exports from Kurdistan last year.

There has been a thaw with regard to the issue, with the Oil Ministry saying it expects exports to resume soon. Even so, the question of who pays the firms developing Kurdish oilfields is likely to be inherited by the next government.

OIL

As well as disputes with Iraq's Kurds over oil, the next government's stewardship of multibillion-dollar oil contracts agreed with foreign firms will be closely scrutinised.

The way Iraq handles its commitment to the deals will be a strong signal for foreign investors nervous about a lack of legal frameworks and clear recourse for arbitration.

The sooner Iraq, which depends on oil for almost all its revenue, is able to exploit its vast reserves, the quicker it can rebuild infrastructure shattered by war and sanctions.

A set of hydrocarbon laws to govern Iraq's oil wealth and the legal status of foreign oil companies has been delayed due to Kurd-Arab disputes on revenue-sharing and on regional versus central government powers.

RECONCILIATION

Sectarian tensions are rising ahead of the election amid suspicions among Iraq's once dominant Sunnis that the Shi'ite majority is trying to deprive them of their fair share of power.

The next government will have to heal the wounds of sectarian warfare that killed tens of thousands after the U.S. invasion, and construct a lasting peace between the two sides.

It may also have to find ways to deter Arab states from interfering on behalf of Sunnis and Iran from meddling in favour of Shi'ites if it wants to stop Iraq from becoming a long-term battlefield between the two Muslim sects.

BASIC SERVICES

Improving basic services will be key to reversing growing Iraqi scepticism about democracy after Saddam Hussein's fall.

Seven years after his overthrow, the national grid supplies only a few hours of power a day. Rubbish fills cities, many roads are almost unusable and health care is basic.

Unemployment is rife and insurgents and militia have found it easy to recruit from among Iraq's poor and disgruntled.

SECURITY

Iraq's security forces, unable to prevent major bombings that rocked Baghdad in recent months or to calm the still violent northern province of Nineveh, will be under greater pressure as the U.S. military speeds up its troop reductions after the election, before a full withdrawal by 2012.

Coordination must be improved between arms of the security forces riven by political, sectarian and ethnic fractures. Corrupt and incompetent security officials must be weeded out.

Iraq also needs to beef up its military hardware, training programmes and intelligence-gathering capability. A lack of effective intelligence work is partly blamed for a series of high-profile Baghdad blasts.

WATER

Iraq has acute water shortages, which are likely to worsen as its 30 million-strong population grows and more agricultural land returns to cultivation after being abandoned during war.

Its two main rivers, the Euphrates and the Tigris, have been dammed by Iraq's neighbours, through which they flow, reducing volumes reaching parched Iraqi plains. Talks with Turkey have yielded some increased flow, but not enough.

The next government may have to negotiate for more, or focus on more efficient use of the little water Iraq has.

CONSTITUTIONAL REFORM

Politicians have long discussed amending the constitution drawn up after the U.S. invasion. At stake are issues relating to the separation of religious and state laws, and the power balance between the central government and the provinces.

BORDERS

Iraq has yet to define its borders with Iran and Kuwait. In December, a small number of Iranian troops entered what Iraq considers its territory to plant an Iranian flag at an inactive oil well. The incursion raised tensions and rattled oil markets.
 
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