As the elections approach, it is becoming increasingly clear that Shi’i organizations will likely emerge in a strong position from the elections. This is not surprising, since the Shi’a constitute the majority of the population. What is more surprising is that most major Shi’i organizations appear to have given up the pretense of being part of non-confessional coalitions. At the same time, however, fissures are also appearing in the Shi’i camp.

Breakdown of the United Iraqi Alliance

Already before the election process started, the United Iraqi Alliance, the grouping of Shi’i organizations that contested the December 2005 parliamentary elections and initially backed the government of Nouri al-Maliki, had started breaking up. The Sadrist movement became particularly isolated from other Shi’i organizations when the Maliki government used the Iraqi military, backed by the Badr Brigade affiliated with Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq (ISCI, formerly the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq or SCIRI), to break Sadrist control over Basra in March 2008. After the fighting, Moqtada al-Sadr retreated to Iran, purportedly to further his theological education. The scion of a family of prominent clerics, Moqtada turned to politics early in life and lacked the theological credentials to give him credibility.

Cooperation in Basra did not prevent fissures to also widen between Maliki’s Dawa Party and ISCI.  There were differences from the beginning between the two organizations on important issues. Maliki, in control of the government, increasingly favored a centralized system. ISCI supported from the outset regional decentralization. Although the idea of forming a large autonomous Shi’i region comprising the nine predominantly Shi’i provinces, briefly favored by ISCI’s leader Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, was quickly abandoned when his son Ammar took over control of the party after Hakim’s death in August 2009, ISCI continued to defend the idea of transferring more power to the regions as the constitution allowed.

Going into the 2010 parliamentary election, Maliki is following the same strategy: he has again shunned other major Shi’i parties, most of which are religious, and has tried to build State of Law into a non-sectarian national level alliance.

Despite some differences over policies, the strife among Shi’i parties and personalities is above all a struggle for power and it intensified as Maliki increasingly sought to assert himself as a strong leader. Maliki was chosen as prime minister after the December 2005 election as a compromise candidate, a weak figure that did not threaten any organization. By 2008, he was trying to assert himself and impose his views. Even U.S. officials who for years had bemoaned Maliki’s incapacity to lead were beginning to worry that he was becoming too authoritarian.

Maliki's Strategy

The turning point in intra-Shi’i relations came with the 2009 provincial elections, during which Maliki launched a new coalition. Instead of running with his former Shi’i allies, he formed his own State of Law coalition, which claimed to be secular, although its centerpiece, Maliki’s own Dawa, was a religious party. The State of Law coalition did quite well in the provincial elections, receiving the plurality of votes in most provinces, while Maliki’s former allies in the UIA—renamed Iraqi National Alliance—lost votes. At the time, analysts, particularly in the United States, hailed the success of State of Law as a sign that sectarianism no longer dominated politics in Iraq. Since sectarianism has re-emerged as the dominant theme of the 2010 parliamentary elections, the success of State of Law was probably due to the calculus of respected provincial and local politicians that they could best preserve and enhance their influence by allying themselves with the prime minister, rather than by antagonizing him.

Going into the 2010 parliamentary election, Maliki is following the same strategy: he has again shunned other major Shi’i parties, most of which are religious, and has tried to build State of Law into a non-sectarian national level alliance. The approach does not appear to be working well, however. First, Maliki failed to attract to the alliance major Sunni or Kurdish parties and personalities. Strikingly, key non-Shi’i members of his own cabinet have not joined the State of Law coalition. Second, whatever non-sectarian credibility the coalition and Maliki had at the outset has been dissipated in the crisis concerning the banning of political parties and candidates considered to be former Baathists. Rather than seeking a compromise solution to the emerging crisis, Maliki took a very hard line against former Baathists and in support of the controversial Justice and Accountability Commission. The bans affected Shi’i as well as Sunni candidates, to be sure, but the best known banned candidates are secular Sunnis. Not surprisingly, Sunni organizations interpreted the bans as an anti-Sunni measure, targeting in particular major critics of the government and its purported relations with Iran. Some Sunni organizations threatened initially to boycott the elections because of the bans, but eventually decided to stay in the election process.

While the INA at first sight represents a remarkable display of Shi’i unity, particularly striking in comparison with the inability of Sunni parties to coalesce, it is in reality a motley array of organizations that are quite divided among themselves.

Maliki thus appears to be entering the elections as a solo player, a leader counting on the power of incumbency to attract support in order to make a strong showing in the elections. It is a risky policy with more than a whiff of arrogance and it could easily backfire, although the effect of incumbency and the patronage it creates cannot be underestimated.

Strong Competition Threatens the Incumbency

The Shi’i parties spurned by Maliki—and spurning him at this point—on the other hand decided to stay together in the Iraqi National Alliance. Although it too claims to be non-confessional and has included some Kurdish and Sunni organization, the INA is the who’s who of Shi’i organizations and politicians. It includes ISCI, now under the leadership of Ammar al-Hakim;  the Badr Organization, the successor of the Badr Brigades, a militia closely associated with ISCI,  under the leadership of Hadi al-Amiri; the Sadrist Trend, under the leadership of the elusive Moqtada al-Sadr; Ibrahim al-Jaafari, prime minister in 2005, who has split from the Dawa party to launch his National Reform Movement; Hizb al-Fadilah al-Islami, led by Hashem al-Hashimi; and the Iraqi National Congress of Ahmad Chalabi. By comparison to this formidable array of Shi’i groups, Sunni partners in the alliance pale.

The only exceptions to this display of Shi’i unity at the outset were Maliki with his State of Law coalition, Iyad Allawi and his Iraqi National Movement, also known as Iraqiya, and, less importantly, Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani, who joined the Unity Alliance of Iraq. Iraqiya was initially the most credibly non-sectarian coalition in Iraq, including important secular Shi’i and Sunni personalities—the non-sectarianism of organizations including religious parties is somewhat suspect at best. But Iraqiya is now apparently preparing to partner with the Shi’i mainstream. The coalition’s spokesperson announced on February 23 that after the elections Iraqiya would join an alliance with the INA and the Kurdish Alliance. Allawi’s bid for a rapprochement with the INA was probably prompted by the banning of Saleh al-Mutlaq, his most prominent Sunni ally accused of Baathist ties. Although al-Mutlaq’s party, the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, has decided not to withdraw from the elections and remains part of Iraqiya, the absence of al-Multaq may have decreased Iraqiya’s attractiveness to Sunni voters, prompting Allawi to look for alternatives.

Simultaneously, however, Allawi has also been trying to cast himself as a statesman who can lead Iraq back to the Arab fold and away from Iran. During the first week of the election campaign Allawi has visited Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon, Kuwait and Egypt to show that, under his leadership, Iraq would be able to gain acceptance in the still recalcitrant Arab world. He is also scheduled to visit Iran, Turkey, and the Arab Maghreb before the election. Vice-president Tareq al-Hashemi, who is also a member of Iraqiya, has also been traveling to Arab countries. And over the past couple of months, ISCI head Ammar al-Hakim did the same in an effort to demonstrate that other parties can develop stronger regional relations than Maliki has been able to do. 

The Survival of the INA

While the INA at first sight represents a remarkable display of Shi’i unity, particularly striking in comparison with the inability of Sunni parties to coalesce, it is in reality a motley array of organizations that are quite divided among themselves. The parties are divided ideologically. Most have a religious bent, but the coalition also includes Ahmad Chalabi, the man who convinced the U.S. government that Iraq is a secular country and probably in the future, Iyad Allawi, another militant secularist; furthermore, the Sadrist Trend is a highly ambiguous movement: the clerical credentials of Moqtada’s family are impeccable but his personal ones are not, and it is difficult to know what role religion, rather than defiance, has played in the building up of his following. 

The post-election period ... is likely to become as important as the elections themselves for the future of Iraq.

Sadr and Hakim have had their share of disagreements in the weeks leading up to the elections. For one, they disagreed on the de-Baathification program. Hakim has declared that the process has to end at some point and has called for distinguishing the Baathists, that is, ordinary party members joining out of necessity, from the Saddamists, die-hard supporters of Saddam Hussein and those nostalgic for the previous regime. Although strong Shi’i opposition to the participation of former Baathists in the elections has led Hakim to drop this distinction, his position on the matter remains much more moderate than Moqtada al-Sadr’s. Moqtada is uncompromising, recalling the centuries of oppression that the Shi’a experienced. Other Sadrists go further: the head of the parliament’s legal affairs committees, a candidate for the Sadrist trend, has issued inflammatory statements that have prompted demands for his recall. Another area of disagreement between Sadr and Hakim is the issue of the “resistance” in Iraq, During a trip to Lebanon, where “resistance” is synonymous with opposition to Israel, Hakim was asked about resistance in Iraq and answered that “the resistance in Iraq is comprised of a group of killers,” referring to the resistance against U.S. occupation and the post-Saddam regime. Sadr’s response was that Hakim did not recognize the validity of the resistance because he had benefited from the occupation—strong words indeed between two leaders who are part of the same alliance. The resistance, he claimed, only targeted occupiers and spared Iraqis.

The major bone of contention in the INA will be the nomination of a prime minister. Were State of Law to get enough votes in the election to be charged with the formation of the government, there is only one candidate for the prime minister position, Maliki himself. But such a landslide victory is extremely unlikely, and alliances will have to be formed, leading to fierce competition for the premiership. Competition for the post will undoubtedly cause much contention among Shi’i organizations. Allawi will certainly make a bid for the position, as will Jaafari—both are positioning themselves through frequent criticism of the current government’s performance. Whether either of them can get the position is far from clear, since neither has a strong past record as a vote getter.

Ammar al-Hakim will not be a candidate, having just succeeded his father and still trying to find his footing as leader of ISCI. But two other ISCI leaders will probably bid for the position. Adel Abdul Mahdi, the current vice president of Iraq, is attracting attention to himself by criticizing Maliki’s performance and even accusing him of undermining separation of powers by hampering the parliament’s oversight role. So is Bayan Jabr Solagh, who was minister of interior at a time when the ministry appeared to be controlled by Shi’i militias. Hakim, who is not competing for the premiership, is putting himself at odds with other Shi’i organizations by suggesting that elections should be followed by the formation of a wide alliance to lead an interim government of national unity, on the assumption that negotiations to form a cabinet will take months and that Maliki should not be allowed to stay on in the interim. Since it is likely that negotiating the formation of an interim government of national unity would itself require much time, the proposal does not appear to have much merit.

Because of the deep divisions among the likely winners in the elections, the Shi’i parties, the March 7 elections will just be the first step in determining the distribution of power in the Iraqi political system in the next phase. The post-election period, in which alliances and parties within them will have to reconsider their options and regroup in view of voting results that will not be decisive, is likely to become as important as the elections themselves for the future of Iraq.