During the recent Dawa Party conference al-Maliki announced that he wants “to create coalitions based on national principles” rather than sectarianism, adding that the “country’s stability will be compromised if there are rival coalitions fighting against each other” on sectarian platforms.
Initially, al-Maliki’s call was welcomed by his main Shia partner, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI). According to Haji Abu Zeinab, the ISCI vice-president in Basra, "the council supports the national discourse and the calls of al-Maliki to overcome sectarian and religious divisions.” He added that this rhetoric has been always advocated on the ground by the coalition’s different forces.
But at the same time Abu Zeinab accused al-Maliki of using the tactic to secure more power for himself in the new coalition. Al-Maliki's says he is entitled to a larger share of power in any new coalition because of his party’s success in recent provincial elections. "The success achieved by the State of Law list headed by al-Maliki in the provincial elections is only a short-term situation,” said Abu Zeinab, dismissing the claim and calling for balance between coalition members.
Observers attribute the recent change in al-Maliki’s rhetoric to his success in the provincial elections on the back of his rejection of a sectarian discourse in favour of a nationalist position.
Observers also say that al-Maliki is trying to attract new allies to the coalition to guarantee that he continues to hold power in Iraq. According to this view al-Maliki is seeking to pull the rug from under the feet of the Shiite parties and the left-wing and nationalist forces by creating a grand alliance encompassing all these trends.
But some question al-Maliki’s aims and the credibility of the slogans he is promoting.
Abbas al-Jourani, a leading figure in Basra’s Communist Party, commented on al-Maliki’s recent discourse saying that “everybody is now repeating national slogans as if this practice has become a new political fashion.” He questioned whether “the basis for formulating national programs is available inside the existing lists and political parties.” Al-Jourani said that “the program of the Dawa party and its one-colour composition is not a good indicator that al-Maliki has overcome the vicious sectarian circle.”
According to Khalil al-Mayahi, a member of the Constitutional Party in Basra, the general political consensus is that al-Maliki will ultimately place his party or sectarian affiliations above that of the government. “All those who work in al-Maliki’s office are members of the Dawa party and are also Shiites. His protection officials, consultants and top intelligence officials are all party members and Shiites, while he has given the very marginal role of political protocol to other components,” said al-Mayahi.
The Sadrist stream, many of whose members continue to languish in prison following the Knights Assault operation in February 2008, also argue that al-Maliki’s rhetoric lacks credibility.
Abu Hamza al-Masri, a member of the Cultural Committee of the Sayyed al-Sadr office in Basra said that “despite these talks, the party and sectarian behaviour of al-Maliki has not ended but on the contrary has been renewed.”
Even so, voters seem to be backing the Prime Minister. Sheikh Hashim Qasim, head of the Rahishat tribe, said that he is optimistic about the Prime Minister’s new approach, stressing that "the electoral program of al-Maliki is a step in the right direction and will receive the support of most of the southern tribes." He added that “nothing can defeat sectarianism and put an end to it other than the formulation of a national project.”
Observers say that al-Maliki has already developed a strong following among both the Sunni and Shia communities in Basra on the back of the Knights Assault operation targeting the rule of local militias.
Independent analysts now believe that al-Maliki has picked the winning horse by seemingly allying himself with nationalist rather than Islamic forces. Muhsen al-Assadi, a professor at the University of Basra, commented that "al-Maliki’s step of distancing himself from his sectarian allegiances will establish a new approach in the political process and will soon achieve good results.”
“Al-Maliki will achieve a sweeping victory in the forthcoming parliamentary elections which will push some of the Islamic forces to form coalitions against him and this will lead to the scattering of the Shiite votes,” predicted al-Assadi.