This article appeared yesterday on the Guardian UK site. It was written and submitted before the death of ISCI leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, hence the absence of any in-depth analysis of its implications for the Iraqi political landscape – something that merits its own separate piece.
Maliki's bold move
Guardian UK, 26 August 2009
The United Iraqi Alliance, a slate of predominantly Shia Muslim parties that became the leading bloc in parliament after Iraq's 2005 elections,has regrouped and renamed itself the Iraqi National Alliance (INA) to contest the country's national elections in January 2010.
The amalgamation follows months of wrangling and negotiations over the composition of the coalition, the distribution of seats and positions of power (which, according to sources, still remains unresolved).
However, there is one very significant absentee: prime minister Nouri al-Maliki's Islamic Dawa party, which will instead form a secular and cross-sectarian alliance that builds on the group's electoral success in the provincial elections last January.
Beyond any personal ramifications it may have for Maliki's political career, the development potentially signals a new stage in Iraqi politics. Iraq may be breaking the dark strictures of sectarian politics to make its way toward becoming a fully functioning pluralistic democracy no longer impeded by a loyalty-based electoral system in which votes are dictated by religious or ethnic affiliations.
Maliki's decision to part ways is certainly a bold one dictated by the INA's reluctance to guarantee him another term in office and, possibly, its refusal to accept the new political reality that allows Dawa to demand a higher proportion of parliamentary seats than other groups. Looking at the January provincial election results, his State of Law coalition (formed for the provincial elections), although emerging strongest, only narrowly beat groups like the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI). It won only two small majorities in Baghdad and Basra. A breakdown of the results shows that he would have won fewer votes and fewer seats had he been up against the newly formed Shia coalition.
But if anybody can beat the odds, it is Maliki. Having come in from obscurity in 2006 to become prime minister as a compromise candidate, he has since exceeded expectations and emerged as a strong leader with a number of credentials to his name, thanks largely to security crackdowns across the ethnic and sectarian board and diplomatic hard-headedness with the Americans. Although January's provincial elections may not have given him a dominant win, they did nevertheless consolidate his power and popularity.
Reports suggest that Maliki will join forces with the powerful Anbar sheikh Ahmed Abu Risha, leader of the Anbar Awakening front that controls the local provincial council. If Maliki is to perform well in Sunni-dominated areas he will need respected Sunni figures like Abu Risha. Other natural allies could include the powerful anti-Kurdistan regional government Ba'athist group, al-Habda, which heads Mosul provincial council.
By forging alliances with prominent, representative political groups and perhaps the new Kurdish opposition party, Change, Maliki could lead the country's first credible and truly national coalition; one that he may bill as a coalition of "champions" that makes the INA look like a grouping of washed-up parties coalesced around sectarian ideals. Moreover, the INA may have difficulty selling itself as an alternative to the current Maliki government given that its leading party, ISCI, has been a key part of it.
Should he manage to forge such an alliance, Maliki could present a more-than-respectable challenge to the INA. However, he still has to allay potential partners' concerns about his over-concentration of power; additionally, he will have to reassure voters with an improvement in security – his number one campaign platform.
Maliki could also entice defections within the INA between now and January, particularly if a strong coalition was to be pitched. Potential Maliki allies within the INA include the Sadrists, known for their retractions and reversals, and who themselves have previously mooted a national and cross-sectarian coalition.
To Maliki's advantage, it is still unclear how the relationship between the centrist Sadrists and the federalist ISCI will play out. The two have a history of competition and violent confrontation that has resulted in some of the most dangerous periods of post-2003 Iraq; their participation in the INA may have been ordered by Iran, where Moqtada al-Sadr is currently in self-exile. Nor is it clear how things will pan out now that influential ISCI leader, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, has died.
Events after the election could be just as significant as events before. The INA may still need a coalition to govern should it win and might therefore turn to Maliki. Alternative partners like the Kurds, strengthened by the Shia divisions, might demand concessions that make any coalition with them unrealistic.
At this point it would be counter-intuitive to rule anything out since there is still some time left until the elections. Iraqi politics is known for being a tumultuous affair where the line between friend and foe is a blurry one. Political convenience may have dictated the current state of affairs but any intra-Shia division that takes Iraq away from sectarian politics is a victory for the average Iraqi.
This should not encourage complacency, though. If last Wednesday'sattacks had the hand of government insiders, which (despite the less-than-convincing televised confession of the alleged perpetrator) they probably did, then division among powerful, power-hungry, armed entities is not exactly assuring.