As Iraqi national elections on March 7 approach, violence and political discord in the country have escalated dramatically.
On February 22, Gen. Ray Odierno, the top US commander in Iraq, announced that the US was preparing contingency plans to delay the withdrawal of all combat forces from Iraq if violence or political instability increases after the national elections scheduled for March 7.
There are approximately 96,000 US military personnel in Iraq. Under President Obama's current plan, which is a continuation of George W. Bush's policy in Iraq, the stated intention is to cut the number of US troops in Iraq to 50,000 by August 31.
The US government plans to keep at least 50,000 troops in Iraq indefinitely, as a so-called training force for Iraqi security forces.
On February 22 alone, the same day General Odierno made his comments, at least 44 Iraqis and one US soldier were killed as attacks raged across Iraq. In one of the attacks, a female suicide bomber killed 22 people and wounded 33 others in an attack at the home of a police commissioner in Balad Ruz. In another, three mortar rounds struck the so-called Green Zone in Baghdad, wounding at least six people.
The attacks have drawn comparisons by Iraqi analysts to rampant attacks that occurred during the sectarian bloodshed that ravaged Iraq between 2006-2007.
On February 19, just days before Odierno made his comment about the possibility of ongoing violence slowing a US withdrawal, US Brig. Gen. Kevin Mangum warned that violence in Iraq could worsen as a result of the upcoming elections.
The elections have been seen as a pivotal point for the Obama administration, with the expectation that they would bring more political stability to Iraq, further enabling a US withdrawal.
Instead, thus far, they are having the opposite effect, as General Mangum suggested might happen.
"Will there be sectarian strife after the election?" asked Mangum. "That's our biggest concern at this point."
Mangum, one of the senior military commanders in Iraq, warned that the period after Iraq's national vote may well be more dangerous than election day itself. Mangum's comments show that the military could already expect Odierno's contingency plans of slowing the withdrawal to be a reality.
Meanwhile, Iraq's political process appears to already be in a state of breakdown largely fomented by current and formerly US-backed players.
Months of delays and growing calls for boycotts, along with actual boycotts of the election from candidates and groups recently banned from participating are fueling political discord that threatens to prevent any party from successfully forming a government in the wake of the elections.
One of Iraq's most prominent Sunni Parliamentarian's, Saleh al-Mutlaq of Iraq's National Dialogue Front, recently decided to pull his party out of the elections and boycott the vote, after being banned by the Accountability and Justice Committee for accusations of having affiliations with Iraq's dissolved Baath Party.
Mutlaq is protesting what he along with many Shia politicians call a "dirty tricks" campaign that he believes is masterminded by Iran that aims to secure power for a Shia government. Many analysts see his move as a reflection of the Sunni boycott of the 2005 Parliamentary elections that led to a large portion of Iraq's population being disenfranchised by the vote, and was viewed as a major contributor to the sectarian violence that followed.
Mutlaq's accusations gain credibility where Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is concerned.