Two entire cities in Iraq will be unable to vote in next week’s elections because of spiralling violence, Western officials have warned.
The insurgent-plagued cities of Fallujah and Ramadi will be among a number of Sunni-dominated areas across central Iraq where election officials will be unable to open polling stations, potentially depriving hundreds of thousands of the right to vote.
The dire security situation in which the elections are going ahead is reminiscent of the country’s first post-Saddam elections in 2005, when threats from al-Qaeda insurgents led to minimal turnouts in most Sunni provinces.
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Wednesday’s polls, the first to be held since the US troop pull-out three years ago, show the severe challenges facing Iraq’s Shia prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, as he seeks a third term in office.
While Mr Maliki has styled himself partly as another Iraqi strongman, concentrating power in his hands and vowing a tough line with insurgents, diplomats say he has failed to address mounting discontent in Sunni areas against his Shia-dominated government.
In January, Sunni militants loyal to al-Qaeda in the Islamic State of the Iraq and the Levant, the joint Iraqi-Syrian militant group, took advantage of that discontent to seize partial control of Fallujah and Ramadi in Iraq’s western Anbar province.
The two cities – former insurgent hotspots that both prided themselves as “graveyards of the Americans” – have since been the target of intensive military sieges by the Iraqi army. But despite deploying heavy armour and thousands of troops, the situation has got worse, rather than better, Western officials said.
As a result of the ongoing fighting, both towns have been declared no-go areas for Iraqi electoral officials. Threats from Sunni insurgents are also expected to stop polling stations opening in some parts of the northern city of Mosul and the central governorates of Diyalah and Saladin, the home of Saddam Hussein’s birthtown of Tikrit.
“It is hard to be certain about the security picture, but it seems that the security operations in Anbar have not succeeded – in fact, the violence has increased,” said one Western official.
“The government appears to have underestimated the number and strength of the insurgent groups, and the capacities of its own forces. It is hard to think that Mr Maliki would not have expected to be in control of Fallujah and Ramadi four months after the operations began.”
From the southern marshland port of Basra through to the tranquil Kurdish towns of the north, some 21 million Iraqis have registered to vote in the elections, which will pit Mr Maliki’s State of Law coalition against a variety of religious and secular rivals. In all, some 107 parties have registered to take part, although Mr Maliki’s own Shia coalition, which enjoys the support of much of Iraq’s two-thirds Shia majority, is widely expected to triumph.
The secular al-Iraqiya bloc, led by Ayad Allawi, the former prime minister who spent time in exile in Britain, is considered too weak and divided this time around to make much of a showing.
Reults of the elections are not expected to be declared for several weeks, after which there will be a period of intensive political horse-trading to decide who emerges in the top job as prime minister. Mr Maliki is still generally considered the favourite, despite criticisms of his handling of the security crisis in Sunni areas.