Competing Shiite groups to determine Iraq’s next government

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It’s been barely over two years since all US military personnel left Iraq in December 2011, but you could be forgiven if you think that it feels much, much longer. iraq flag icon

When Iraqis go to the polls to vote today, it won’t likely make front-page headlines in the United States, even as Iraq moves away from national unity and toward growing sectarianism once again.

The last time that Iraqis went to the polls, the country seemed like it was on the mend. The destructive civil war from 2006 to 2008 that divided Baghdad (and much of the rest of Iraq) on Shiite and Sunni lines had subsided, thanks in part to a ‘surge’ of US military force and the ‘Awakening,’ a movement Sunni Iraqi leaders to combat radical elements like al-Qaeda. Iraq’s prime minister since 2006, Nouri al-Maliki, was running for reelection on a nationalist platform just as much as he was running to emerge as the leading Shiite power broker.

Fast forward four years, and Iraqis now seem less sanguine about the future than at any time since 2008. Even though Maliki (pictured above) is favored to win a third term as Iraq’s prime minister, Iraq’s future is an uncertain as ever. Exacerbated by the three-year civil war in neighboring Syria, sectarian tensions are once again on the rise. Corruption and mismanagement among Iraq’s ruling class has corroded the ability of its government to deliver even the most basic of public services, to maximize oil revenues or to provide sufficient power in Baghdad or elsewhere in the country. Members, both Sunni and Shiite, of Maliki’s ‘national unity’ government have spent the past four years fighting over access to power rather than working on policy solutions. In reality, the ‘national unity’ government, as headed by Maliki, has contributed to Iraq’s growing disunity. What’s more, it’s brought a disturbing lack of accountability — because everyone’s inside the government, there’s no opposition to hold the government accountable and there’s no credible alternative-in-waiting.

Dissatisfaction is growing at an alarming rate among Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority — note that Sunni Arabs roughly constitute around 20% of Iraq’s population, with Shiite Arabs comprising around 60% and Iraqi Kurds comprising 20%.

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That’s left much of the western al-Anbar province under the control of more radical Sunni groups that are also fighting against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Clumsy attempts last December by the Maliki government to assert control over Fallujah and other cities in the Sunni-dominated west only served to empower Sunni resistance, including a fair share of radical jihadists, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS or ISIL, الدولة الاسلامية في العراق والشام, ad-Dawla al-Islamiyya fi al-’Iraq wa-sh-Sham‎), which formerly held itself out as Iraq’s homegrown branch of al-Qaeda, and which is active in Syria as well. But the violence is no longer confined to the west — an alarming number of suicide bombings and other attacks are on the rise all across Iraq, from Baghdad to Basra, the oil-rich province in the far south.

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Radical groups have warned Sunni Arabs against participating in today’s elections on threat of violence. But parts of the Sunni west are so dangerous that the central Iraqi government won’t even be able to conduct elections there. The unrest follows Maliki’s systematic exclusion of top Sunni figures from government, including Iraq’s vice president, Tariq al-Hashemi, who fled to Iraqi Kurdistan and then Turkey after Maliki’s forces tried him for murder and sentenced him to death. From the army to the central bank to the oil ministry, Maliki has skillfully excluded his ostensible Sunni partners in favor of Shiite allies.  

Meanwhile, in the north, Iraqi Kurdistan has forged ahead with an increasingly autonomous government that’s avoided many of the missteps of the central government, even as Iraqi Kurdistan pulls further away from Baghdad. For example, the Kurdish government is now shipping 100,000 barrels of oil a day through a pipeline to Turkey, thereby exacerbating relations with Baghdad to the point that Maliki has suspended  the 17% of the Iraqi budget allocated to the Kurds. As Iraqi Kurdistan continues to prosper as an oasis of stability with a relatively successful democracy and a strong economy that is attracting a growing amount of foreign investment, it’s sharing less and less in common with the rest of Iraq that seems to be heading into turmoil.

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RELATED: Bordered by chaos, Iraqi Kurdistan holds elections in relative oasis of peace and democracy

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So amid all the gloom, what should you expect from the voting in today’s parliamentary election?

Iraqi voters will select all 325 members of the Council of Representatives (مجلس النواب العراقي‎ Majlis an-Nuwwab al-ʿIraqiyy), Iraq’s unicameral legislature.

From the secular nationalism of 2010 to the sectarianism of 2014

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In the previous March 2010 elections, Maliki led a coalition of mostly Shiite parties, the State of Law Coalition (إئتلاف دولة القانون, ‎I’tilāf Dawlat al-Qānūn), dominated by Maliki’s own Islamic Dawa Party (حزب الدعوة الإسلامية, Ḥizb Al-Daʿwa Al-Islamiyya), a movement founded in 1958 and led by Islamic scholar Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr until his execution in 1980, to promote Islamic values in Iraq’s government. In the era of Saddam Hussein, Islamic Dawa became one of the chief Shiite opposition groups resisting Saddam’s ruling Sunni-dominated Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party (حزب البعث العربي الاشتراكي‎, Ḥizb Al-Ba‘ath Al-‘Arabi Al-Ishtiraki), even during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Despite its historical proximity with Iran’s ruling Shiite Islamist government, it became closer to the United States in the 1990s, sharing a common enemy in Saddam.

Despite Maliki’s decades in the leadership of the Shiite opposition, he positioned himself in 2010 as a truly national figure. It wasn’t enough, however, to stop a competing coalition that positioned itself as even more cross-sectarian ‘al-Iraqiyya, the Iraqi National Movement (الحركة الوطنية العراقية, al-Haraka al-Wataniya al-Iraqiyya), a coalition of parties — mostly Sunni, but some Shiite as well, including its leader Ayad Allawi, who had briefly served as Iraq’s prime minister in 2004-05. Though a Shiite leader like Maliki, he spent much of the Saddam era in exile in London, and he’s historically been much more hostile to Iranian influence than Maliki and other Shiite leaders.

Though Allawi’s bloc had a slight advantage in seats after the 2010 elections, Maliki used his position as the incumbent prime minister and the lack of any real precedents within Iraq’s nascent post-Ba’athist institutions to form a government — and he did, though it took nine months to negotiate it. Though Maliki ultimately agreed to a national unity government that set aside the vice presidency and other key offices for Sunni officials and other leaders of al-Iraqiyya, Maliki has over the past four years increasingly pushed Sunni leaders out of power. That experience should guide expectations for the aftermath of the 2014 elections — no party is expected to win a majority of seats in the Chamber of Representatives, so Maliki seems likely to use every advantage to remain in power by whatever means possible.

Those strains, including a Sunni-Shiite rift that’s once again widening, led to the dissolution of the cross-sectarian al-Iraqiyya into its constituent Sunni and Shiite components, including its two largest parties, which are competing separately in 2014: Allawi’s secular Wifaq, or Iraqi National Accord (الوفاق الوطني العراقي Al-Wifaq Al-Watani Al-‘Iraqi) and Hiwar, the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue (الجبهة العراقية للحوار الوطني, al-Jabha al-Iraqia li al-Hiwar al-Watani), a Sunni party led by deputy prime minister Saleh al-Mutlaq.

Without his Sunni allies, that’s left Allawi struggling to win votes from among the dwindling secular-minded voters in an already crowded Shiite space. Though he was a credible option to become prime minister in 2010, he’s waging his 2014 campaign merely to be a voice within Iraqi governance.

The battle for Iraq is today a battle among Shiites

The disinterest of the Kurds (who are busy building a prosperous de facto state in the north) and the resistance of the Sunni Arabs only amplifies the fact that the real battle for control of Iraq is among the Shiite parties that are competing for Shiite votes.

For Maliki to emerge victorious, he need not win a 165-seat majority in the Council of Representatives. It’s enough for him to become the dominant vote-winner among Iraq’s Shiite community. Even if he doesn’t, he could still win a third term so long as he keeps the opposing Shiite parties from uniting.

His opponents include the populist, conservative Sadrist Movement (التيار الصدري, al-Tayyar al-Sadri), which is led by Muqtada al-Sadr, who rose to fame as a Shiite militia leader during the Iraq war and, despite four years of self-exile in Iran, remains one of Iraq’s most important politico-religious leaders. Though Sadr, in February, made a big fuss that he was withdrawing from Iraqi politics, his part is nonetheless fielding candidates, and Sadr could become a strong foil to Maliki.

Perhaps more tantalizing is the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ICSI, المجلس الأعلى الإسلامي العراقي‎, Al-Majlis Al-A’ala Al-Islami Al-’Iraqi), which finished a strong second in 2013 local elections at Maliki’s expense. If the ICSI and the Sadrists do well enough, and if they can unite post-election, there’s a chance, however small, that the ICSI’s leader, Ammar al-Hakim, could replace Maliki. With Maliki credibly hoping to win over 100 seats in the election, that seems like a longshot. But if Maliki’s State of Law Coalition/Islamic Dawa falls short, and wins more like 80 seats, the Shiite opposition, perhaps with some Sunni or Kurdish support, could displace Maliki.

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