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Maliki Vs. Sadr:
Iraq’s Provincial Councils A New - And Dangerous - Political Battleground

Mustafa Habib
As Shiite Muslim political rivalry plays out on various Iraqi provincial councils, it’s becoming clear that the country’s next provincial elections will be among the most important ever – and the most perilous.
5.01.2017  |  Baghdad
Supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr (pictures on poster) on Iraqi streets.
Supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr (pictures on poster) on Iraqi streets.

Last month, Iraq’s unpopular former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki paid a visit to the southern Iraqi provinces of Maysan, Basra and Nasiriya. But instead of a welcoming committee he was met by thousands of Iraqis demonstrating against him. Most of these were affiliated with, or followers of, another political leader, the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

In Basra, dozens of the protestors, who chanted that al-Maliki was corrupt and a thief, even went so far as to try and storm the hall where al-Maliki was giving a speech, forcing security staff to cancel the event. After the cancellation, al-Maliki threatened to launch a new version of a 2008 military operation called Sawat al-Fursan, or Operation Knight’s Charge, against the protestors. This was a military operation sent into Basra to purge Basra of militias affiliated with al-Sadr’s movement at the time.

This may have been an idle threat – the 2008 operation did not succeed and a truce between the two Shiite Muslim leaders was eventually brokered by Iran. But the real repercussions of the protests began to be played out some days later on Iraq’s latest, and increasingly important, political battleground: The country’s provincial councils.

Because of various new legislation that gives provincial councils more power to make their own decisions on security, finance and politics, Iraq is moving slowly toward a more decentralized system. Competition for power on these councils will only increase in the future.

Calling Baghdad’s governor for questioning at this time is clearly politically motivated. Why did they choose this moment? What have they been doing for the past few months?

And competition for seats on the provincial councils in southern Iraq, populated mainly by the country’s Shiite Muslims, will be divided between two main Shiite Muslim groups: The State of Law coalition, led by Nouri al-Maliki of which the current prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is also a member, and the forces led by two younger clerics, Ammar al-Hakim and Muqtada al-Sadr. The pair represent a new Iraqi generation in political Islam.

Al-Maliki’s next response to the humiliation he suffered in front of al-Sadr’s protestors in southern Iraq was to instruct the members of the Baghdad provincial council belonging to the State of Law coalition, to question their governor, Ali al-Tamimi, a member of al-Sadr’s Sadrist movement.

The governor was to be called to answer special questions about financial and administrative corruption, including questions about a security system to monitor vehicles in Baghdad, to try and stop car bombs, that was planned but never carried out. Money for the system was collected from the people of Baghdad.

 “Calling Baghdad’s governor in for questioning at this time is clearly politically motivated,” council member Fadel Al-Shuwaili, also a member of the Sadrist movement, told NIQASH. “Why did they choose this moment? What have they been doing for the past few months?”

But, al-Shuwaili said, the alliance between the Sadrist members of the council and other parties is strong and the State of Law members won’t be able to sack the governor. The State of Law has 20 out of 58 seats on the provincial council but would need over 29 to be able to dismiss the governor.

“This questioning of officials is both legal and constitutional,” says Saad al-Matlabi, a senior member of Nouri al-Maliki's party and one of his supporters, in reply to the criticism. “If the Sadrist movement trusts their governor, then why are they afraid of having him questioned?”

A few days later the next campaign against a provincial Sadrist politician began. This time it was Maysan’s popular governor, Ali Dawai, also a Sadr supporter, in the spotlight.

State of Law members in Maysan accused him of helping organize the protests against al-Maliki in that province and of preventing the supporters of al-Maliki from planning their own meeting. Dawai denied the allegations and said he would file a lawsuit against those who accused him falsely.

Meanwhile in Basra, the head of the provincial council’s financial committee, Ahmad al-Sulaiti, who is in al-Maliki’s camp, asked the province’s governor, Majid al-Nasrawi, pointed questions about the details of certain financial contracts concluded in Basra. Al-Nasrawi is not a member of the Sadrist movement. But he is a member of the Islamic Supreme Council, headed by Ammar al-Hakim, and currently an important ally of the Sadrists. 

But it wasn’t just the State of law members playing political hardball on the provincial field. The Sadrists got their own back fairly quickly, responding by preparing to question Karbala governor Aqeel al-Turaihi, a member of the State of Law group and close to al-Maliki.

A Sadr-supporting member of Karbala’s council, Majid Said al-Maliki, admitted as much, saying that the questioning of Karbala’s governor was simply a tit-for-tat response to the questioning of Baghdad’s governor. He added that the Sadrists were in the same position in Karbala as State of Law members were in Baghdad: None of them had a big enough majority on their respective councils to be able to remove the governor.

Up until now most of the problems between the two sides of the Shiite alliance have been settled at the ballot box. But if they cannot be, those political conflicts could turn violent.

After 2003, Iraq’s Shiite Muslim-dominated parties came together in order to ensure their hold on political power. But over recent years cracks have shown in this alliance. After 2013’s provincial elections, there were nine Shiite Muslim-dominated councils formed in the south of the country, which has a Shiite Muslim majority population. The Shiite Muslim provincial councils were either for al-Maliki on one hand, or for al-Hakim and/or al-Sadr on the other.

After 2014’s federal elections, during which the country’s government was elected, this rift deepened further. Al-Maliki had become unpopular and al-Sadr banded together with Sunni Muslim parties in order to push al-Maliki out of the prime minister’s job. Al-Maliki was replaced by a more palatable member of his own party, Haider al-Abadi.

Over the past two years the Shiite Muslim parties have appeared more united again, having been forced back together by the security crisis sparked by the extremist group known as the Islamic State.

But as the Islamic State, or IS, group seems increasingly likely to be pushed out of Iraq soon, many analysts are starting to worry about what happens to the Shiite alliance, after the security crisis has – more or less – been resolved.

Up until now most of the problems between the two sides of the Shiite alliance have been settled at the ballot box. That could have happened again in the provincial elections, slated to be held early in 2017. But for various reasons – areas still held by the IS group, many displaced unable to vote – those elections have now been postponed until 2018; they will take place at the same time as the next federal elections. Which also means those problems between the two sides of the Shiite alliance cannot be resolved by voters.

The other complicating factor is the presence of the Shiite Muslim volunteer militias. These were formed in 2014 by thousands of volunteers, many from southern Iraq, to fight the IS group after the Iraqi army in the north collapsed in the face of the extremist onslaught. The IS group’s days will eventually be numbered in Iraq, and now-battle-hardened fighters from those militias, which have played a crucial yet controversial role in the fighting, will be returning home to southern Iraq. Additionally the militias will most likely continue to exist in some form or another, as the Iraqi government has more or less made them a legitimate fighting force, separate from the standing Iraqi army.

Yet the militias themselves do not present a united Shiite front either; there are many of them and they have different allegiances to different Shiite leaders – such as, for example, al-Maliki’s or al-Sadr’s.

At the moment al-Maliki and his block are seeking to change the country’s provincial councils before the 2018 elections. Al-Sadr and al-Hakim appear to want to maintain them as they are, until elections can be held.

The worry is that, given conflicts between leaders like al-Maliki and al-Sadr cannot be resolved at the ballot box, they may draw the militias into the scrap too – and those political conflicts could then turn violent.

Also worth considering is the fact that the militias have become immensely popular among ordinary Iraqi Shiites and are often seen as the heroes of the past two years. This gives them great political potential, that could be used to support the political affiliations they already have or, possibly even in some cases, create their own new, independent political entities. They may challenge the traditional Shiite political parties, many of whose members are seen by ordinary people as corrupt and as having done nothing for anyone but themselves.

One thing is for sure: Iraq’s next set of provincial elections, now planned for 2018, will quite likely be some of the most important elections the country has held since 2003, if not the most important. They may also be among the most dangerous. 

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