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With violence down, Iraq prepares for parliamentary polls

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With violence down, Iraq prepares for parliamentary polls

Source: Agence France-Presse (AFP)

Date: 28 Dec 2009

BAGHDAD, Dec 28, 2009 (AFP) - Violence in Iraq dropped in 2009 to the lowest level since the US invasion but dangers lie ahead as the country prepares for the second general election since Saddam Hussein's ouster and as American forces begin pulling out.

The year also saw Iraq take early steps towards rebuilding its moribund economy and crumbling infrastructure as it courted foreign investment and auctioned off massive oil fields in a bid to ramp up crude output.

The drop in violence, which remains high by international standards, came as Iraqi security forces took control of the country's cities and towns as part of an American military pullout from urban centres on June 30.

Around 115,000 US soldiers are still stationed in Iraq, though that figure is set to drop to 50,000 by the end of August as part of a deal between Baghdad and Washington that calls for a full American withdrawal by the end of 2011.

With parliamentary elections scheduled for March 7, however, concerns remain that instability could increase in 2010 as political parties wrangle over the formation of a new government just as American combat troops begin to draw down in earnest.

Attacks have, however, declined nationwide. According to a tally of official tolls compiled by AFP, 3,114 Iraqi civilians, soldiers and policemen were killed as a result of violence in the first 11 months of 2009.

By comparison, 6,798 people died from attacks in 2008, 17,783 in 2007 and 34,452 in 2006.

Despite the dramatic drop-off in violence -- November saw the fewest deaths as a result of violence since the 2003 invasion -- Al-Qaeda appeared to change its strategy to target government offices in the capital, resulting in massive bombings in August, October and December that killed in all nearly 400 people.

The three sets of co-ordinated vehicle blasts sparked widespread anger, eventually spurring parliament to question Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who has been credited with blunting the violent insurgency that threatened to engulf Iraq in 2006 and 2007.

Maliki is bidding to retain his post following the March legislative polls, which had to be delayed because of protracted negotiations over a law governing the election, though he will have to do so without his former Shiite allies, the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, from whom he broke away.

Sunni Arabs will also look to increase their say via the polls after boycotting the last general election in 2005, after the overthrow of Saddam two years earlier marked the end of 80 years of Sunni political dominance in Iraq.

Iraqi political leaders and senior American military officers have warned of an upswing in violence as insurgent groups attempt to influence the outcome of the election.

The vote comes as Iraq struggles to rebuild and reopen its economy, which has been crippled by decades of violence and sanctions.

Baghdad took its initial steps along that road in 2009, inviting companies to large investment conferences in London and Washington, though neither produced any deals.

The country, which has the third-largest set of oil reserves in the world, also auctioned off 10 oil fields to foreign energy firms, thereby raising its potential output in seven years to 12 million barrels per day, opening up its oil sector to the outside world for the first time in more than 35 years.

That level of production, a five-fold increase on current output, would bring in billions of dollars of extra revenue to Iraq's government, which is heavily dependent on crude sales for income, and would rival the world's biggest producers of oil.

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