Osama al-Nujaifi (R) meets Us Secretary of State John Kerry earlier this year.
During Iraq’s 2010 general elections, Sunni Muslim politicians formed one major bloc, which meant that, in effect, they won the elections. They didn’t manage to form a cohesive coalition though - and their Shiite Muslim opposition did; that government, headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, has ruled Iraq since late 2010.
As a result, Iraq’s Sunni Muslims seem to have gained a new political leader in the form of Osama al-Nujaifi, the current Speaker of the House. Over the past fortnight, senior Sunni Muslim politicians have been conducting meetings to decide what will happen with former members of the mostly Sunni Muslim, opposition Iraqiya bloc next year.
The outcome of the meetings: instead of one, there will be three mostly Sunni Muslim alliances competing in the next elections. These are the United bloc, headed by al-Nujaifi, the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue headed by current Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq and then finally the National Iraqiya bloc to be led by the former head of the Iraqiya bloc, Ayed Allawi.
Sources inside the meetings told NIQASH that the reason that negotiations broke down on putting up a cohesive front was Allawi’s insistence that he lead the bloc again. However al-Nujaifi, whose profile has certainly been rising over the past few years, also wanted that position at the head of the table. Additionally neither Allawi nor al-Nujaifi wanted to ally themselves with an increasingly unpopular (with Sunni Muslims anyway) Saleh al-Mutlaq. Al-Mutlaq is seen as far too close to al-Maliki and he has recently been at the receiving end of Sunni Muslim protestors’ dislike for him.
The United coalition, led by al-Nujaifi, will include 14 other Sunni Muslim groups as well as a group of Turkmen politicians. Meanwhile Allawi’s National Iraqiya group is composed of a variety of different political entities from right around Iraq. These include Sunni Muslim, Shiite Muslim and tribal based groups and many of them don’t have major voter support. Allawi has said he is staying with this group because of his ongoing belief in non-sectarian politics.
“We will not abandon our principles and we will compete in the elections in a list that is composed of Sunni Muslims and Shiite Muslim members, who come from every part of the land,” Salim Dali, an MP from that group, told NIQASH.
Meanwhile al-Mutlaq doesn’t seem to be any more popular with Sunni Muslim constituents than a few months ago. Because of his close connections to al-Maliki’s government, he was jeered at by protestors in the Anbar province who were demonstrating for better conditions for their sect under al-Maliki. After starting negotiations with a controversial politician, Mishaan al-Jibouri, a Sunni Muslim who has expressed support for former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in the past, a number of al-Mutlaq’s own party walked out and joined the coalition group led by al-Nujaifi.
Local observers say that it is hardly surprising that the Iraqiya bloc has fallen apart like this in the run up to the elections. The process actually began way back in 2010, when the bloc couldn’t form a government. There have been several defections from the bloc over the past years with defectors going on to form parties like the White Iraqiya party.
“It’s not really that strange to see the Iraqiya list disintegrate like this,” says Alia Nassif, an MP for Iraqiya. “From the very start it wasn’t a homogenous group. And it was really run by its leaders while normal MPs didn’t have much say.”
The various splits have weakened Allawi’s standing. Now Al-Mutlaq is seen as the Sunni Muslim voters’ representative in the executive while al-Nujaifi, a high profile MP who is well known for his oppositional views and outspokenness, was seen as the Sunni Muslim voters’ representative on the Parliament floor. Allawi, who had been promised high ranking positions when al-Maliki took over the government as part of a compromise deal, has received none of these seats and his popularity has declined.
Although the separation of the components of Iraqiya has been obvious, neither al-Mutlaq nor al-Nujaifi had made any official comments about the splits. However during the recent provincial elections, and now in the run up to the general elections, it has become very clear just how torn the bloc is.
Allawi has been somewhat sidelined – and not just because he didn’t get the top jobs he was promised. He is actually a Shiite Muslim, a secular politician and an advocate of non-sectarian politics. For many Sunni Muslims, who feel that they’ve been sidelined over the past few years, this kind of politician does not seem like the right figure to lead a mainly Sunni Muslim bloc of almost a hundred MPs.
So now it seems Iraq’s Sunni Muslims are most likely to be led by al-Nujaifi, the most popular politician among the three. Many Sunni Muslim voters have felt the need for a strong Sunni Muslim leader who could deliver them their rights as citizens. Al-Nujaifi is known for his decisiveness and his willingness to speak out against what were seen as Shiite Muslim infringements on those rights, and apparently, at least among Sunni Muslim MPs, he is seen as the right leader for this time.
Interestingly, and perhaps typically for Iraq, just as Iraq’s Shiite Muslims seem to have taken one more step toward a non-sectarian era of politics with their new alliances, this re-grouping of Sunni Muslim political groups seems to have taken another one back - toward sectarianism.