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bye bye shiite alliance
is iraq about to enter post-sectarian political era?

Mustafa Habib
As political parties prepare for upcoming general elections, some very important alliances are falling apart. Shiite Muslim parties allied in the current governing coalition led by PM Nouri-al-Maliki say they will…
5.12.2013  |  Baghdad

Prominent Shiite Muslim politicians in Baghdad have confessed that there is one major reason why the previously strong alliance of Shiite Muslim parties is breaking up. This alliance was what allowed current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to form his ruling coalition, the State of Law bloc. But now, as political parties start negotiating partnerships and jockeying for position ahead of the upcoming general elections, scheduled for April 2014, the formerly strong Shiite Muslim alliances have fallen apart.

A special meeting was held in Baghdad on Nov. 18 at which all member parties of al-Maliki’s alliance were present. A statement was issued afterwards declaring, “Shiite Muslim parties are enthusiastic about competing in the coming elections together”. But this seems to have been spin: The reality on the ground is very different.

“The State of Law bloc has asked that all other parties that want to enter into an alliance with it agree ahead of elections that if they win, the future Prime Minister will come from the Dawa party and that that party will not nominate anyone other than Nouri al-Maliki,” a senior politician, who did not want to be named, told NIQASH. “This is why the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and the Sadrist bloc are avoiding any such alliance.”

The strongest Shiite Muslim parties in Iraq are al-Maliki’s Dawa party, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, or ISCI, headed by cleric Ammar al-Hakim and the Sadrist bloc, headed by another cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. There are also other minor Shiite Muslim parties such as the National Reform Trend headed by former Prime Minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, and the Islamic Virtue Party, or Fadhila, headed by controversial Najaf-based cleric, Mohammed Musa al-Yaqoubi.

Both the Sadrist bloc and the ISCI seem firm about their intentions not to enter into an alliance with al-Maliki’s party again. Both al-Hakim and al-Sadr have been critical of al-Maliki’s government, with al-Sadr being very harsh, very publicly and al-Hakim tending to be quietly critical.

There’s no chance of getting back together, Sadrist MP Jawad al-Shuhaili told NIQASH – mainly because the Sadrists refuse to agree that al-Maliki should get a third term. “We’re certain of our popularity and we believe we will win many seats without having to enter into any alliance,” al-Shuhaili says. With their political wing, the Ahrar party, the Sadrists have 40 seats in the 325 seat Iraqi Parliament.

“Each Shiite party now has its own opinions and it will be very difficult to get them all together in one alliance,” al-Shuhaili added.

“The idea of forming a big Shiite alliance is just not feasible anymore,” ISCI MP, Furat al-Shara, says. “We are all going to compete in the elections separately and there will be no joint coalitions.”

Post the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq that toppled the regime of former leader Saddam Hussein, the ISCI was one of the country’s most powerful parties. But over the past few elections, its strength and popularity has waned. However the recent provincial elections seems to have seen many Shiite Muslim voters returning to the ISCI fold and the party is hoping that this scenario repeats itself in the upcoming general elections.

Even some of the smaller Shiite Muslim parties feel this way. Al-Jaafari, who heads the National Reform Trend party, is generally considered a staunch ally of al-Maliki. But several days ago, he too announced that he would compete independently in the general elections.

Meanwhile the Fadhila party and the Badr organization, an offshoot of the ISCI, have decided they will enter into an alliance with al-Maliki’s Dawa party – observers suggest that this is because they are not all that popular on their own and they really need the bigger party’s favour. Additionally these two parties are not opposed to seeing al-Maliki as Prime Minister for another term.

The State of Law coalition say they don’t care and that they are happy to go it alone during election campaigns. “We have a lot of popular support,” Mohammed al-Sahyoud, a leading member of al-Maliki\'s Dawa party, told NIQASH. “We will compete by ourselves and then we will build our alliances after the election, based on results.”

Apart from al-Maliki’s own party, most other political entities are opposed to trying to name a prime minister before the elections have even been held. “The idea of insisting on a candidate now, without waiting for the results of the election is illogical,” says MP, judge and legal expert, Wael Abdul-Latif. “The elections will resolve that question and it is quite possible that some of the most popular parties will enter into an alliance just to make sure the government is no longer led by [al-Maliki’s] State of Law bloc.”

All of this has already caused rejoicing in some quarters, where political analysts are suggesting that, at last, Iraq is entering an era of post-sectarian politics. And perhaps not a moment too soon, as the country is plagued by increasing levels of what appears to be sectarian conflict but which is most likely to also be due to the increased presence of extremist militias associated with the likes of Al Qaeda – which in turn have to do with the conflict in neighbouring Syria. Many ordinary Iraqis will tell you they just want to live in peace with their neighbours, no matter which sect they belong to.

The optimistic believe that, after competing in the elections independently, the various sectarian-based parties will enter into non-sectarian alliances, based on political plans rather than ethnicity or religion. After the last general elections, both leading Sunni Muslim and Shiite Muslim parties had an almost equal share of votes. The formation of what would be al-Maliki’s governing coalition took months and many believe that some of the Shiite Muslim politicians who entered into the alliance did so out of fear that they might lose Parliament to n almost equally large Sunni Muslim alliance.

But now it’s thought that, if a similar situation arises after the next general elections, the larger Shiite Muslim parties might not mind that so much. In fact they may choose to enter into a political relationship with Sunni Muslim or Kurdish parties in order to achieve a majority in Parliament.

The way that the Baghdad local authority was formed after recent provincial elections is a good example of the way this may all play out. There, although al-Maliki’s State of Law alliance won the most votes, the Sadrist bloc and the ISCI negotiated an alliance with two Sunni Muslim parties. Together they were able to form a majority on the provincial council and a senior Sunni Muslim politician, Riyadh al-Adhadh, became chairman of the council while Ali Mohsen al-Tamimi, a Sadrist, became governor of Baghdad.