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official split
shifting shiite allegiances change political landscape

Mustafa Habib
In Iraqi politics, secular allegiances – Shiite Muslim or Sunni Muslim? - are getting more complicated and possibly less relevant. The latest example sees the formerly armed wing of the Supreme Islamic…
15.03.2012  |  Baghdad
Leader of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, Ammar al-Hakim, leads prayers in Baghdad. (Photo by Ali al Saadi /AFP)
Leader of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, Ammar al-Hakim, leads prayers in Baghdad. (Photo by Ali al Saadi /AFP)

The divorce is official. At the beginning of the week the split within one of the most important political organizations representing the interests of Iraq’s Shiite Muslims was announced. The fact that the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and the Badr Organization, which operates under its auspices, were officially separating didn’t really surprise anyone.

Rumours about the split have been persistent for almost a year. But what will be interesting is the way in which this changes Iraq’s political landscape, particularly because ongoing ruptures within mainly Shiite Muslim parties are making voting on strictly secular lines look outdated.

The Badr Organization - once the armed military wing of the Supreme Islamic Council and opposed to former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s regime but now a political party that operates under the auspices of the Council – is an important part of the Council but its leadership has been having differences of opinion with Council leadership for some time now.

The seeds of this split were planted two years ago when Ammar al-Hakim was chosen as the leader of Islamic Supreme Council, to replace his father who died of cancer at a Tehran hospital in August 2009.

Al-Hakim senior had asked his followers to choose his son as his successor. But this request angered many within the well organised Shiite Muslim group, including Hadi al-Amiri, the leader of the Badr Organization, al-Hakim senior’s political adviser, Hammam Hammoudi, and another senior politician Jalaluddin al-Saghir. The three are known as the hard line, more conservative “hawks” of the organization.

Indeed, in making al-Hakim their leader the Council ignored many within their ranks who felt he was young and inexperienced. The leaders of the Badr Organization were among those dissenters; they felt that simply choosing a leader using patrilineal descent would weaken the group. But other senior members of the council felt this was most important, saying that they would lose electoral support if they didn’t use the tradition of patrilineal descent.

Ever since the difficult and much negotiated formation of the new Iraqi government in November of 2010, the two groups have been at loggerheads.

The head of the Badr Organization, al-Amiri, supported current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s bid for power and was rewarded with a ministerial post: he is the current Minister of Transport in Iraq.

Meanwhile the new head of the Islamic Supreme Council, al-Hakim junior, was more open to al-Maliki’s main opponent, former Iraqi prime minister Ayed Allawi. Allawi and his party are supposedly secular – in fact, Allawi is a Shiite Muslim too but most of his bloc is Sunni Muslim. As a result of supporting the losing side though, the Islamic Supreme Council did not get any ministerial posts.

In the 2010 elections, the Islamic Supreme Council lost a lot of voter support and the younger al-Hakim tried to find out why. In trying to revitalise the party, he attempted to include younger people in party activities and he also gave younger politicians more senior positions. All of this angered the more conservative Badr Organization.

Tensions came to a head in late August of 2011 when al-Hakim decided to change the name of the political bloc the Supreme Islamic Council heads, from the Mehrab Martyr List, which referred to his murdered uncle, a former leader of the Council, to Muwaten, which translates to The Citizen.

Al-Hakim apparently felt that the name was more indicative of the role of the political bloc in its attempts to serve Iraqi citizens – in terms of social welfare initiatives, the Supreme Islamic Council has tried to work in a similar community-minded way to other political groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

As a result of all of these tensions – and others - people have been referring to the two groups within the alliance separately for some time now: the Badr group and the al-Hakim group.

The two factions seemed unable to agree on very much at all and rumour had it that Iran had stopped contributing funding to al-Hakim’s group.

One of the most recent examples of the separation was seen during gubernatorial elections in the Diyala province where the Supreme Islamic Council supported the candidate backed by Iraqiya. Al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition, including the Badr Organization, backed another candidate.

Al-Hakim has also become a player on an international level. As the relationship between Turkey and Iraq deteriorated recently over the political crisis sparked by an arrest warrant issued for Iraqi Vice-President Tariq al-Hashimi, al-Hakim visited Turkey and met with that country’s prime minister. This visit apparently angered Baghdad.

One thing that is interesting to note is the tone that the two organizations are sticking to, in regard to the discussion. Neither criticises the other directly and their opposing viewpoints are never made public. When the split was announced earlier this week both groups said it would have a positive impact.

“The split between the two factions won’t have a major impact on what has traditionally united the two parties,” MP Abdul Hussein Abtan, a member of the Supreme Islamic Council, told NIQASH. “There may be some differences of opinion when it comes to minor issues but on the big issues, there is consensus.”

Abtan also said that the two groups had both been administered quite separately for years. “In announcing the split, this just became official,” he explained.

No doubt another part of the reason is the slow transformation of the Badr Organization. Previously it was an armed militia and acted on behalf of the Supreme Islamic Council while the Supreme Islamic Council did their political part. But since the Badr Corps was demilitarized in 2003 and it became the Badr Organization, most of their armed men –estimated up to 10,000 at one stage – have entered the official Iraqi military and the Organization has become a political group with its own policies and decision makers.

“The split doesn’t mean that the two parties won’t take similar stances on certain issues, or that they won’t unite to compete in elections,” former MP and Badr Organization member Mohammed al-Bayati said.

The first big impact the split will have is likely to be upon provincial elections planned for the end of the year. Analysts say that new alliances between parties with Shiite Muslim majority backing will most likely be formed. Their first prediction: that the Badr Organization will join with al-Maliki’s ruling State of Law coalition to compete with other Shiite Muslim groups - their former umbrella group, the Supreme Islamic Council, and another Shiite Muslim group, the Sadrists.