US troop deployment to Afghanistan may depend on Iraq poll


THE US military may have to put on indefinite hold its plan to dispatch additional troops to Afghanistan if Iraq’s election does not take place on time in January.

Since 120,000 troops are needed to provide security for Iraq’s election, reinforcements for Afghanistan requested by Gen Stanley McChrystal, head of central command, will not be available until afterwards and, perhaps, not until a new Iraqi government is formed.

The Obama administration plans to withdraw in stages from Iraq, reducing numbers to 50,000 troops by August 2010 and completing withdrawal by the end of 2011.

On Wednesday, after prolonged debate, the Iraqi parliament admitted failure in its efforts to draft a new election law to govern the coming contest and asked the Political Council for National Security to take on the task.

Speaker Ayad al-Samarrai said legislators had agreed that Iraqis will vote for specific candidates rather than faction lists, but added that the assembly remained deadlocked over the conduct of the poll in northern oil-rich Tamim province and its capital, Kirkuk.

The council consists of Shia prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, Kurdish president Jalal Talabani, his Sunni and Shia deputies, and leaders of the main parliamentary blocs. President Barack Obama urged Mr Maliki, who is in the US, to resolve the problem promptly.

The election has been set for January 16th, but may be postponed until the end of the month without breaching the deadline fixed by the constitution. The election commission says 90 days are needed to prepare for the poll.

In Tamim, Arabs and Turkomen want to use 2004 lists of eligible voters because lists drawn up after the 2005 election include thousands of Kurds settled in the province by the Kurdish leadership. The Kurds want the lists to reflect this demographic shift to prove that the province has a Kurdish majority which, in a referendum, could decide to join Tamim to the autonomous Kurdish region. The Kurds also seek to annex territory where Kurds dwell in Nineveh and Dyala provinces.

This is unacceptable to Baghdad, Iraqi Arabs, 85 per cent of the population, and the Turkomen minority, who are prepared to fight Kurdish expansion.

To prevent this from happening, analysts argue that pressure should be exerted on the Kurds to withdraw peshmerga militiamen from areas outside the three-province Kurdish region, and the boundaries of this region should be delineated. Joost Hilterman of the International Crisis Group holds that the Kurds could be pressed to drop territorial claims in Kirkuk if they were given long-term guarantees on the territorial integrity of the Kurdish region and the scope of its autonomy, as well as a share in governance in Tamim.

However, the prime mover of such a deal would have to be the US rather than Iraqi politicians, who cannot be expected to reach the “grand bargain” Mr Hilterman proposes.