May 5, 2014 2:19 am JST

National unity key to sustaining Iraqi reconstruction

TAKESHI KUMON, Nikkei staff writer

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- Sure of his ruling bloc's victory in legislative elections last week, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki faces deep-set opposition in his bid for a third term.

     Sectarian strife and rising violence threaten Iraq's progress in rebuilding a ravaged nation and boosting production of crude oil from the world's fifth-largest proven reserves. Its economic development will hinge on the next government's ability to promote reconciliation and improve security.

     "Our victory is certain," Maliki said after voting Wednesday, adding that the question was "how big" the win would be.

     For all his confidence, the prime minister's Shiite-dominated State of Law coalition is expected to fall short of a stand-alone majority. It will thus need allies to form a government -- a process that took nine months after the 2010 election.

     Maliki's first government, inaugurated in 2006, brought foreign investment to the oil industry. Output reached a 35-year high of 3.6 million barrels a day this past February. Revenue from oil exports is fueling a boom in reconstruction activity. Iraq has $530 billion in projects underway, the third-highest total in the Middle East, according to MEED, an economic journal covering the region.

     Iraq's economy will expand nearly 7% next year and achieve 8-9% growth through 2019, the International Monetary Fund reckons. Japanese companies are gradually moving in, joining other multinationals.

     While Maliki has presided over efforts to rebuild an industrial base ruined by years of dictatorship and war, his government's corruption and heavy-handed tactics have earned him scorn. The prime minister has failed to bring unity to Iraq's fractious populace, with minority Sunnis accusing the government of repression. Such dissent creates fertile ground for Islamist extremists and sectarian violence.

     Iraq's internal problems are compounded by the conflicts in its neighborhood. Sunni militants are crossing the border from civil-war-torn Syria to the west. Iran, the Shiite power to the east, is eager to see Iraq remain under Shia rule. Fearing the rise of Persian power, Saudi Arabia to the south aids Sunni militias. And the entire Middle East is buffeted by the winds of U.S. foreign policy.

     Terrorism plagued Iraq leading up to the election. The United Nations says 750 people were killed in attacks in April alone. Sabotage of oil pipelines has disrupted exports, and army and security forces have their hands full battling militants.

     Provisional results of the voting are due out in a few weeks. Which path the country takes will depend on whether the next government chooses to indulge in sectarianism. Should Maliki manage to hang on for a third term, Shiites would tighten their grip on power, some say.