Shiite politicians meet and it doesn't look like fun.
The manipulations and manoeuvrings in Iraqi politics started for real this week as efforts to form a new government began. And the outlook is best described as complicated. This is mainly due to the fact that parties and politicians who usually unite when it comes to making the most important decisions for Iraq, are currently divided. Mostly the divisions can be defined as between political parties who want to stick to the same patterns of power from years past and those parties who are no longer satisfied with that system. The latter say they are responding to the demands of Iraq’s people who want more national unity, less ethno-sectarian conflict and a curb on political excesses and foreign influence.
In terms of foreign influence, Iran has been the most prominent player, with an overt desire to influence the country’s various Shiite Muslim parties, all of which are jockeying to be able to form the biggest bloc in Iraq’s parliament and then nominate a Cabinet and a prime minister.
After previous elections, the country’s Shiite Muslim parties used to form one large bloc to ensure that they were the ones negotiating with the other larger sectors of Iraqi politics – the Sunni Muslims and the Kurds – and making the decisions about the next government. This year though, two Shiite Muslim groups are competing to do this.
Shortly before the meeting, one of Iran’s best-known deal makers, military commander, Qasim Soleimani was in town.
The four most popular Shiite Muslim alliances, which won the most votes in the federal election held May 12, are currently divided – despite their shared sectarian origins. The first group is composed of the Victory alliance, headed by the most recent prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, the Sairoun alliance, headed by the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and the National Wisdom party, headed by another young cleric, Ammar al-Hakim. These three have announced that they reject the idea of Iranian – or any other foreign – influence and have entered into an unusual alliance with Ayad Allawi, who heads the Wataniya, or National, alliance and other smaller Sunni Muslim parties. This is unusual because Wataniya is mainly made up of Sunni Muslims.
Meanwhile the other group of Shiite Muslim parties is made up of the State of Law coalition, which is led by the man who was prime minister before al-Abadi, Nouri al-Maliki, alongside the Conquest alliance, led by Shiite militia leader, Hadi al-Ameri.
Last week, the first group – the Victory alliance, Sairoun, National Wisdom and various smaller Sunni Muslim parties – arranged to hold a historic meeting at the Babylon Hotel in Baghdad. However sources say that Iranian influence prevented the meeting from taking place the way it had been expected to.
“Kurdish and Sunni representatives were supposed to attend the meeting,” confirms one senior Shiite politician, who did not wish to be named because they were not supposed to comment on the behind-the-scenes atmosphere. “But some of the Iranians who were in the country at the time discouraged them from attending,” he asserts. “Still, even though it didn’t achieve its goals, the Babylon Hotel meeting was a challenge to Iranian authority.”
A picture of Qasim Soleimani visiting Najaf, on Iraqi TV.
Shortly before the meeting, one of Iran’s best-known deal makers, military commander, Qasim Soleimani was in town. Both Iranian and Iraqi media broadcast pictures of the infamous commander of the Iranian Qods force in town, just two days before the event was to take place.
The relationship between Soleimani and that bloc of Shiite Muslim politicians appears to have deteriorated. According to local media, al-Abadi, who is still acting prime minister until his replacement is selected, did not let Soleimani’s plane land in Baghdad. It was forced to re-route to Erbil in northern Iraq.
Then again the relationship between al-Abadi and Iran has not been so sweet, ever since al-Abadi announced that Iraq would be abiding by – or at least, trying to abide by – the US sanctions on Iran. It would be difficult for him to get support for his re-election as prime minister from the Iranians given that.
At the same time, there were also internal divisions inside the Victory alliance, that al-Abadi heads. Faleh al-Fayad, national security advisor and an important member of the Victory alliance because of his ties to the Shiite Muslim militias, announced he was defecting to the other Shiite Muslim group. In return, they selected him as their nominee for the prime minister’s job.
The proposed withdrawal was clearly a way of disrupting the potential of the Shiite political alliance that was not so loyal to Iran.
“Our alliance has been being targeted for months,” complains Tharwan al-Halfi, an MP for the Victory alliance. “And that is because we have national goals and because we reject foreign interference,” he told NIQASH. “We held a meeting last Friday where we all reiterated the unity of our alliance. We were able to do this even though some of our members did not attend the meeting.”
Afterwards the reasons behind the non-attendance of the Kurdish and Sunni Muslim politicians at the Babylon Hotel emerged. Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, one of the most senior commanders in the Shiite Muslim militias, decided to withdraw all of the militias from Sunni Muslim areas. This is something that Sunni Muslim politicians have long wanted – they fear being policed by the occasionally lawless militias. It is also worth noting that al-Mohandes is very loyal to Iran and the proposed withdrawal was clearly a way of disrupting the potential of the Shiite political alliance not clearly loyal to Iran.
However after al-Abadi paid a surprise visit to the militia headquarters – all factions were there but al-Mohandes was not present – the decision to pull the troops out of those sensitive areas was reversed. Al-Abadi said the order had been given for political reasons, to try and gain more during wrangling about government formation, and that the militias should not be involved in this.
That reversal caused the Sunni Muslim politicians to reconsider and many said they were still sounding out other appropriate political partnerships.
“Sunni parties are remaining neutral with regard to the two Shiite groups,” Sunni Muslim politician, Nahida al-Dayni, told NIQASH, adding that negotiations were ongoing.
Time is running short though. According to the Iraqi Constitution, the president of the country needs to issue a decree within 15 days of the ratification of election results , calling on parliament to convene under the chairmanship of the two oldest members, with the task of electing the parliamentary Speaker. After this a new president will be elected, who will call on the biggest bloc in Parliament to form a Cabinet.
The current president, Fuad Masum, issued that decree on August 27 and MPs are expected to meet for the first time next Monday.