Struan Stevenson: Looming deadline threatens to unhinge fragile Iraq peace

WITH the West's focus now firmly on the continuing carnage in Afghanistan, you could be forgiven for thinking that Iraq these days was a haven of peace and prosperity.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the recent election result is still being fought over by rival factions who risk missing a constitutional deadline tomorrow for choosing a new president, 30 days after the factious parliament first sat.

If it is breached, there is a real danger that the green shoots of democracy in Iraq will be trampled underfoot and all of the suffering, deaths, devastation and economic collapse will have been in vain.

It is now four months since the Al Iraqiya bloc led by former prime minister Ayad Allawi narrowly won the elections with a majority of only two seats over the incumbent prime minister, Nouri al Maliki.

But Mr Maliki has clung to power like a limpet, determined to use every means to stay in office. There have been trumped-up legal charges brought against a number of Ayad Allawi's newly elected MPs, alleging they supported Saddam Hussein's Ba'athist Party.

Mr Maliki even demanded a recount of votes cast in Baghdad, claiming that there had been widespread fraud. It changed nothing, ending with exactly the same result.

Meanwhile, three members of Mr Allawi's Al Iraqiya Party have been murdered in the past two months in politically-motivated shootings. Mr Maliki has cast around for possible partners, at one point announcing that he had brokered a grand coalition with minor Shia and Kurdish parties in the Iraqi parliament.

But some of the Shia factions, particularly the small group led by the hardline insurgent-turned-kingmaker Muqtada al Sadr, will not countenance Mr Maliki's return to power as prime minister. So the deadlock continues.

Democracy is the only reason the beleaguered Iraqi people have endured all of this misery. If it is allowed to die with the breaching of the constitution, then civil war and a return to violence and mayhem seem the only possible outcome.

The international community must prevent this. If no president has been elected by then, this should automatically trigger the international community's invoking of Chapter 7 of the UN Security Council Resolution on Iraq - whereby the international community will have to assume responsibility to prevent a return to violence and civil war.

This is of crucial importance, as any vacuum created by a breach of the constitution will be readily filled by neighbouring Iran, already meddling extensively in Iraqi internal affairs and keen to extend its malign brand of fascist Islam across the whole Middle East.

US Vice-President Joe Biden visited Iraq on US Independence Day - 4th July - to re-affirm his commitment to a complete military withdrawal by the end of next year, with 50,000 US military personnel leaving by next month.

Biden didn't seem to care who forms the next government in Iraq, apparently determined to shake the dust of Iraq from his shoes and to wash his hands of the whole mess the US will leave behind. This simply will not do.

With escalating violence, almost daily suicide bombings and even the re-emergence of Muqtada al Sadr's Mahdi Army on the streets of Baghdad, the signs are ominous. The sectarian divisions which the election was supposed to heal have re-opened. The faith of the Iraqi people in the democratic process is being sorely tested.

Iraq needs a stable, non-sectarian, government in the national interest. The task of setting up such a government must surely fall to the victor of the election, Ayad Allawi. If he cannot do so by tomorrow, then the West must intervene once more to avert catastrophe.

• Struan Stevenson is a Conservative Euro MP and president of the European parliament's delegation for relations with Iraq.

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