Middle East

Iraq elections: Can country be saved from break-up?

Iraqis walk past election campaign billboards in Kahramana Square, in the capital Baghdad, on 13 April 2014
Image caption The clusters of election posters sprouting across cities testify to the fractious nature of Iraqi politics

Iraqis go to the polls on 30 April in parliamentary elections overshadowed by violence and sectarian tension.

Prime Minister Nouri Maliki is bidding for a third term, presenting himself as the only candidate capable of defeating a growing al-Qaeda-inspired insurgency.

But Sunni Arabs and Kurds accuse Mr Maliki of being too authoritarian and pro-Shia. Some observers think his re-election could endanger Iraq's fragile democracy.

What's at stake?

These elections are likely to have a big influence on the future stability - and possible even unity - of Iraq.

Following five years of sectarian violence in the wake of the 2003 US invasion, the three main ethnic-religious groups - the Shia Arab majority, Sunni Arabs and Kurds - achieved some degree of co-operation and power-sharing, but there are fears this may be breaking down.

A worsening of violence in Iraq - or even the break-up of the country - could have major implications for a region already strained by power rivalries, tensions between Shia and Sunni communities and the Syrian civil war.

Iraq: Prospects of partition as violence takes its toll

What happened at the last election?

Iraqi politics is dominated by shifting alliances or blocs, usually rooted in one of the ethnic and religious communities.

Prime Minister Maliki's mainly Shia State of Law bloc only came second at the last election in 2010, which saw the Shia vote split between two rival blocs.

It took nine months of difficult negotiations before a government was formed, and Mr Maliki held on for a second term at the head of a Shia-dominated coalition.

What do Mr Maliki's critics say?

Image caption Mr Maliki (right) portrays himself as the strong leader Iraq needs to achieve stability

Since the last election, Mr Maliki has increasingly centralised power in his hands, gaining control over the security forces and - according to some - strong influence over the theoretically independent courts.

He says this is needed to deal with Iraq's problems, but many Sunnis argue he has a sectarian agenda and favours the majority Shia.

Several key Sunni figures have been arrested and some of them tried in what they claimed was political persecution.

Mr Maliki's tough manner of dealing with anti-government protests in majority Sunni areas has further alienated Sunni opinion. Even some Shia groups have become critical.

Maliki: Iraq's shrewd operator

What about the violence?

Against the backdrop of growing political tensions between the majority Shia and minority Sunnis, sectarian violence saw a resurgence last year. The UN reported that at least 7,818 civilians and 1,050 security forces members were killed in Iraq in 2013 - the highest death toll for five years.

It seems to be linked to decreased stability in Syria, the Iraqi government's crackdown on Sunni protest camps, and the perception that the Shia-led government is not treating Sunnis fairly, which has strengthened al-Qaeda's position in Iraq.

Moderate Sunni tribal militias that fought the radicals and had a role in ending the civil war have become suspicious of the Shia-dominated Baghdad authorities.

Buoyed by the conflict in neighbouring Syria, al-Qaeda-inspired Sunni Islamist militants have seized some areas in Sunni-dominated Anbar province.

They have also been increasingly carrying out suicide attacks in mainly Shia areas ahead of the election.

Image caption Bombings are still a common threat for Iraqis, such as here in the mainly Shia Baghdad district of Sadr City
Image caption Iraqi security forces battling al-Qaeda-linked insurgents are mistrusted by some Sunnis

UN: Iraq's death toll highest in five years

Iraq Anbar violence sparks civilian search for safety

What are the key issues?

Voters are frustrated with rampant corruption and poor public services, but see that solving them depends on improved security.

Growing violence has shaken Iraqis' confidence in the government's ability to protect people, especially among the Shia majority.

Mr Maliki has responded by promoting his determination to deal with the insurgency, using force if necessary. But critics say this is fraught with the danger of further alienating Sunnis.

Image caption ISCI leader Ammar al-Hakim - seen addressing a rally - is viewed as one of Mr Maliki's main Shia rivals

What Iraqis have to say about the elections

Who is likely to win?

This is tricky to predict. Iraq operates a form of proportional representation, which gives smaller parties slightly better chances to win seats, making it hard to win an overall majority. Who ends up running Iraq could mainly depend on the post-election coalition talks.

Mr Maliki is seen has having a good chance of winning again, if only because his State of Law alliance has escaped the fragmentation seen by other blocs that competed in the last election.

His main rival then, former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, is seen as less of a contender this time round, but could still do well among Sunnis.

Image caption Women - 25% of candidates must be female - feature heavily, amid fears Islamism is eroding rights

His secular Iraqiya bloc, which included both Shia and Sunni and came first in 2010, has fractured, and Mr Allawi (a Shia) is now seen as a more overtly pro-Sunni figure.

The main threat to Mr Maliki is seen as coming from other Shia blocs. One is led by the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), and has a strong focus on welfare and public services.

The other is the Ahrar bloc, although this has been weakened somewhat by the surprise resignation of its leading figure, the Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr, whose Mehdi Army fought US troops during the occupation.

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