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Post-Sectarian Politics?
Iraq’s Most Important Political Alliance Riven By Disputes

Mustafa Habib
An alliance of Iraq’s Shiite Muslim politicians has dominated the country’s parliament for over a decade. But today, that alliance looks increasingly insecure, with leaders looking for new partnerships.
20.04.2017  |  Baghdad
A meeting of the leaders of the National Alliance in Iraq. Source: Website (photo: الموقع الرسمي للتحالف الوطني)
A meeting of the leaders of the National Alliance in Iraq. Source: Website (photo: الموقع الرسمي للتحالف الوطني)

Last week Iraqi cleric Ammar al-Hakim called upon his fellow politicians, in the Shiite Muslim political alliance that basically runs the country, to start looking for his successor. The alliance brings together Shiite Muslim political parties in Baghdad to form a united front in Parliament based on sectarian allegiances, and leadership of the group is rotated among the heads of the different parties. Al-Hakim heads the Shiite-Muslim-dominated Citizen, or Muwatin bloc, as well as the associated body, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq.

Yet al-Hakim still has five months of his tenure as head of the bloc to go. The question is why does the political and religious leader believe that the process needs to start so early?

One likely possibility: Divisions inside the alliance are deepening all the time and al-Hakim knows it. The current Iraqi government was formed three years ago and the tensions between the main sectors within the alliance appear to be rising because of the security and economic developments in Iraq over the past two and a half years.

The split seems to be worsening. Meetings of the alliance have been fraught and some MPs have withdrawn.

The Iraqi National Alliance, as it is known, has dominated local politics since 2005. Major parties in it, include the State of Law coalition, which is led by former – and controversial – prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, the Sadrist movement’s political bloc, led by another influential Iraqi cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, and al-Hakim’s Citizen group.

But after the formation of the current Iraqi government in 2014, the Alliance was divided, mainly over who would be the next prime minister of the country. One group, comprised of the Sadrists, al-Hakim’s group and some members of the State of Law coalition, said they wanted a new prime minister and they supported Haider al-Abadi, a member of the State of Law coalition, for the job. The other group within the Alliance was composed of the majority of the State of Law coalition and they insisted that the former prime minister, and leader of their coalition, Nouri al-Maliki, should have the job again.

Al-Abadi eventually got the job but that split just seems to be worsening. Meetings of the alliance have been fraught and some MPs have withdrawn, notably from the Sadrist stream.

“We were surprised by al-Hakim’s call,” Abbas al-Bayati, a Turkmen MP from the State of Law coalition, who is closer to the current prime minister, al-Abadi, than al-Maliki, told NIQASH. “It is still so early to be talking about replacements. And the funny thing is that this issue was not discussed in meetings with other Shiite Muslim politicians either. It may well be that the very different points of view recently discussed in Parliament are what caused al-Hakim’s remarks.”

After al-Hakim’s speech, names for a new leader of the Alliance were quickly floated. The State of Law coalition immediately announced that it thought Nouri al-Maliki, the former Prime Minister who is often blamed for the current state of the country and the rise of the extremist group known as the Islamic State, would be their choice.

Of course, the Sadrists, who have not been close to al-Maliki for some time, are completely opposed to that.

“Nominating al-Maliki to lead the Alliance takes us back to the days of dictatorship,” says Ghazwan Faisal, an MP from the Ahrar block, the political wing of the Sadrist movement. “During his administration, our cities came under the control of the extremists and there was widespread and increasing administrative and financial corruption.” 

At one stage, the disputes among the members of the Alliance centred on who should be the country’s prime minister. But since the Alliance was formed, things have become vastly more complicated.

One major bone of contention involves Iraq’s Shiite Muslim militias, which started out as volunteer groups fighting the extremist Islamic State, or IS, group and which have since become an official Iraqi force.

Some parties in the Alliance believe the militias should be disbanded after the IS group has been pushed out of the country. Others believe they should remain employed by the government as extra security, a sort of semi-permanent force in addition to the army and the police.

Most of the political parties are associated with a militia and while some – such as the Sadrists – say they think their associated militia should be disbanded, others, like the militias that are closer to neighbouring Iran and al-Maliki, want to remain on.

Al-Hakim’s party, the Citizen bloc, has not made a final decision on this topic.

There is also the question of whether the Iraqi militias should be fighting in Syria. The militias associated with al-Hakim and al-Sadr won’t go there while the ones more closely associated with Iran see no shame in fighting there, on behalf of reviled Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad.

Another issue up for debate is about how the Alliance should behave in Parliament in the future. Al-Maliki is committed to having the whole bloc vote together, as a Shiite Muslim majority, on all decisions. However the Sadrists are against this. In fact, recently the Sadrist politicians have been building closer ties to other parties, including secular and liberal parties. Muqtada al-Sadr has also supported demonstrations against political corruption in recent months and these were first started by civil society and secular organisations. Additionally he has apparently been in talks with Ayad Allawi, one of Iraq’s first prime ministers after the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. Allawi was known for his attempts to move Iraq beyond secular politics.  

On this subject too, al-Hakim seems unsure of which side he is on. He has spoken recently about his vision for Iraq’s future based on a political majority, rather than a sectarian one, where all Shiites vote together simply because of their religion – the same would apply to Iraq’s Sunni politicians.

Iraq won’t hold elections until early in 2018. But whether the Shiite Muslim politicians’ alliance can last until then, nobody knows.

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