Amid growing levels of violence, political tension and general governmental disarray, what might best be described as Iraq’s Shiite Muslim political block is splintering. These days their block is just as fragmented and disillusioned as any other political grouping in the country.
But there are two younger Shiite politicians who are becoming more and more popular, with both Shiite Muslim voters and non-Shiite voters. They are Ammar al-Hakim who leads the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and Muqtada al-Sadr, who heads the so-called Sadrist block, which includes political, military and social wings.
Somewhat ironically – considering the pair is becoming more popular with non-Shiite Muslims as well – both politicians come from fairly strong religious backgrounds and famous religious families; both wear the uniform of the religious man, or theological scholar, in Iraq, including a black turban which signifies they are Shiite Muslim descendants of the Prophet Mohammed. It’s also ironic considering that in recent days, the pair seems more popular in secular Iraqi political circles than the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, himself, who wears secular, Western-style clothing.
Al-Sadr and al-Hakim appear to be forging their own paths through the political quagmire that is Iraq’s nascent democracy. For one thing they are seen as being in touch with the people, having focused on social service to the ordinary Iraqi citizen – and this is in contrast to al-Maliki’s party, which is seen as working mainly for its own political gains and its elite, at the expense of any other interests.
Provincial elections held earlier this year resulted in some serious gains for the followers of al-Sadr and al-Hakim. The State of Law coalition led by al-Maliki was able to win 87 seats in the nine mostly-Shiite Muslim provinces of Iraq. Meanwhile al-Hakim’s Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq won 61 and the Sadrists won 58. Previously al-Sadr had joined with al-Maliki to shut al-Hakim out of any coalition. But recently al-Sadr has switched sides, forming an alliance with al-Hakim and standing against al-Maliki’s State of Law in some areas. And that allegiance allowed them to win the leaderships of two very important parts of the country, Baghdad and the oil-rich and prosperous southern city of Basra.
It is quite possible that al-Hakim and al-Sadr are able to repeat this performance in the upcoming 2014 parliamentary elections in Iraq, which, it was recently announced, would take place in April next year.
Additionally al-Hakim and al-Sadr are popular with more than just their traditional constituencies, having both been vocal in their support for a more inclusive system, where Sunni Muslims and other groups are not marginalized. Al-Sadr has been supportive of anti-government demonstrations held in the Sunni Muslim-dominated Anbar province and al-Hakim has said he considers such demonstrations a legitimate right of the Iraqi people. The two leaders have also been positive when it comes to Iraq’s other powerful political group, the Iraqi Kurdish.
“The potential to build a political alliance with al-Sadr or al-Hakim in the future is big,” MP Waleed al-Muhammadi, a member of the mostly Sunni Muslim opposition block, Iraqiya, told NIQASH; al-Muhammadi comes from the Anbar province where many locals have been protesting against the Shiite Muslim dominated government lately. “The two men take positions that serve the national interest and they’ve always condemned the current government’s marginalization of the Sunnis in Iraq.”
So how have the two comparatively young politicians achieved what they have, over the past 12 months or so?
Learning From The Past And Saying Sorry
Ammar al-Hakim became leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq when his father, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, died in 2009. After the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled the government of Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s first elections saw the party become one of the nation’s most powerful. However over the past ten years, it has lost a lot of support and parliamentary seats.
It wasn’t an easy task for al-Hakim junior to take over his father’s position though. Many of the Islamic Supreme Council’s most prominent and senior members were much older than him and he had to convince them of his abilities as a leader.
He has also had to change the party’s entrenched way of thinking – something that had come about after years in opposition and persecution by the Hussein regime.
Another big problem was the party’s lack of popularity – the 2009 provincial elections saw them hold onto only one province. But al-Hakim has done a lot to turn them around, despite the defection of one wing of the Supreme Council, the Badr organization that mainly represented the old guard in the party.
“He has been trying to play the role of an intermediately figure between Najaf, the seat of Shia learning and host to number of a high-ranking clerics, and Washington,” Professor Babak Rahimi of the University of California in the US told the Musings on Iraq website earlier this year. “He has also focused on expanding social services in impoverished neighbourhoods in Baghdad and other major cities as a way to compete with the Sadrists.”
Al-Hakim has done things like conduct weekly and monthly meetings with his Shiite Muslim constituencies, some of which were religious, others of which were cultural and social meetings. During those meetings, al-Hakim apparently conceded that there had been mistakes made by the party itself. Meanwhile he also introduced subtle criticisms of al-Maliki.
"It’s permissible to make mistakes in politics,” Hamid Mala, a senior member of the Supreme Council, told NIQASH. “The first step towards correcting one’s mistakes is to acknowledge them. And that’s what we have done as a political organization. We will succeed because we are serious about our work.”
Al-Hakim also appears to have a new policy based on making friends and forging new alliances, rather than making enemies. He has met influential Sunni Muslim leaders in areas like Anbar when al-Maliki would not. He has also tried to open the door to better relations with other parties in Iraq, such as the Iraqi Kurdish, the Communists, the Christians and the Shabaks.
The Ultimate Political Chameleon
Meanwhile al-Sadr has also been changing his tactics. Although the Sadrist movement’s militia group, the Mahdi Army, has had a bad reputation among many Iraqis – for their use of terrorist tactics and for violence against Iraq’s Sunni Muslim population – al-Sadr has gone a long toward rehabilitating this group’s image. For several years al-Sadr was seen as an extremist who exhorted his tens of thousands of followers to kill both their Sunni Muslim countrymen and members of the US military. Since then though he has changed his tune a lot, calling upon the Mahdi army to disarm and moving toward reconciliation with Sunni Muslim groups and politicians.
He’s also made a point of staying in touch with his constituents on the ground. He stayed out of Iraq a lot between 2006 and 2012, spending more time in Iran. However now he’s back in Iraq and holds almost daily conversations with his supporters; he’s also instituted what appears to be a more democratic way of running his movement. His supporters conduct elections to decide who will be the Sadrist candidate in any provincial or parliamentary election. This apparently means the best candidates get to run – and al-Sadr doesn’t pull rank when the decisions are being made.
Because of this al-Sadr is gaining a reputation for appointing competent political advisers and listening to them, as well as increasingly distancing himself from religious advisers.
The cleric has also proven himself an adept politician. He’s been openly critical of al-Maliki on many occasions, going so far as to call his coalition partner a dictator. He’s also accused al-Maliki of giving all Shiite Muslims a bad name with his methods of government. This has made al-Sadr more popular with his former enemies, Iraq’s Sunni Muslims and the Iraqi Kurdish, who have described his words as brave and non-sectarian.
Al-Sadr has also said that despite the fact that he is religious and that his movement includes plenty of religious conservatives, he is not a fan of a theocratic government and that he wouldn’t be imposing Islam on the Iraqi government.
Last month, sitting between two journalists who were interviewing him, al-Sadr joked: “I’m the Islamist meat in the secular sandwich. Either I convince you about religion - or you convince me about secularism.”
Meanwhile, Back in Baghdad…
All of this is, of course, eating into Shiite Muslim support for the current Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki. To many ordinary Iraqis it feels as though, rather than making friends or establishing some sort of détente with his enemies, al-Maliki has simply been alienating everyone else – to the extent that the country’s politics are deadlocked.
The last parliamentary elections saw the vote split fairly evenly between the largest parties and it took several months of negotiations and a ruling by Iraq’s Federal Supreme Court to even establish a government. To achieve this, Iraqiya, the major opposition party which was also in the running to rule the country because of the even outcome of the elections, was promised a variety of things, including senior positions, power sharing, the formation of another executive body and leadership of the defence ministry. Many of these promises by al-Maliki and his party have not been kept.
Over the past few years, al-Maliki has also antagonized his Shiite Muslim allies, the ones he formed the ruling coalition with in the first place.
“We no longer trust al-Maliki,” Sadrist MP Jawad al-Shuhaili, told NIQASH. “Any alliance with him in the future would be very difficult. Today, in any preparations for the upcoming elections, we would be more interested in forming alliances with [al-Hakim’s group] the Supreme Council, the Sunni Muslim MPs or the Iraqi Kurdish,” he confirmed.
Al-Maliki doesn’t appear to have that much support on a regional or international level either. His relationship with important allies, the Americans, has been marred by all of the above and by the fact that violence in Iraq is on the rise again due at least partially, many believe, to al-Maliki’s mismanagement.
One prominent politician told NIQASH off the record that the next year’s elections would see some big changes, no matter who wins the most votes. In 2010, the decision as to who would rule the country was made thanks to external powers, mostly due to an external consensus between Iran and the USA, he believes.
“After that, the internal consensus was arrived at – but this was much less relevant,” the politician explained. “But 2014 is going to be different,” he continued.
Of course, there are always sectarian issues to bear in mind and there is Iraq’s infamous, yet unofficial, sectarian quota to consider. This system was used to put together an interim government after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq and it was meant to maintain a balance between all the different, and often competing and conflicted, ethnic and religious factions. Although the quota system was never based in law, it has continued to be used in Iraqi politics today. And it is based on demographics; for example, the last census suggests that the majority of the country is Shiite Muslim, so it was only fair that a Shiite Muslim should be prime minister. And in many ways, al-Maliki originally derived his power from that system.
However, as the senior politician suggests, today “both the US and Iran know that supporting al-Maliki for another term is going to be hard, especially if there are other Shiite Muslim parties around, competing against him – such as those fronted by al-Hakim and al-Sadr, and especially if those two also enjoy the support of Iraq’s Sunnis and Kurds.”
In 2014 - despite any sectarian quotas - the internal consensus will be more important than any regional or international consensus, he concludes. All of which makes both al-Hakim and al-Sadr strong contenders to head a new Iraqi government, if things go their way in April 2014.