Al-Hayat reports in Arabic that a delegation from the (Shiite) United Iraqi Alliance [UIA] met for three hours on Sunday with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, seeking his advice on how to rebuild the coalition ahead of January’s parliamentary elections. A leading member of the political delegation was the former BFF of the Neoconservatives, Ahmad Chalabi.
Something is going on. Chalabi is just back from a trip to Iran, where he hobnobbed with the hard liners and with Qom’s own ayatollahs. The USG Open Source Center translates an article from Friday’s edition of al-Zaman [the Times of Baghdad]
“National Conference Chairman Ahmad Chalabi has met religious authorities in Iran’s Qom to discuss the recent developments in the Iraqi arena. A statement issued by Chalabi’s office yesterday said that he “met with the religious authority, Sayyid Muhammad Sadiq al-Shirazi.” Earlier this week, Chalabi met with Sayyid Abd-al-Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Iraqi Islamic Supreme Council (IISC) in hospital in the Iranian capital.”
Prominent ISCI leader Hamid Muallah predicted that a new coalition would soon be announced.
At the same time, the son of Grand Ayatollah Bashir al-Najafi (originally from Karachi), a colleague of Sistani’s, affirmed that the four grand ayatollahs in the holy city of Najaf would refrain from endorsing any party in the upcoming elections, though they of course hoped that the UIA would do well and that Iraqis would not forget their religious principles. The Najaf clergy have been eager to differentiate themselves from those of neighboring Iran, who largely assert that clerics must rule the country. The Najaf tradition is quietist and rejects theocracy in favor of clerical influence both in government and among the public. Influence is different from control.
The UIA was originally put together under the guidance of Sistani, and it ultimately grouped the major Shiite religious political parties. In fall of 2005 these included 1) the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq led by the al-Hakim clerical family; 2) the Islamic Mission (Da’wa) Party (the party of current prime minister Nuri al-Maliki); 3) the Sadr Movement of Muqtada al-Sadr, and 4) the Islamic Virtue Party (Fadhila). Many independents and even some secular nationalists of a Shiite heritage also ran on this list.
In the summer of 2007, the UIA began falling apart. The Islamic Virtue Party, which then controlled the southern oil port of Basra, pulled out because they were denied the Oil Ministry as a portfolio. The Sadr Movement pulled out because Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki refused to stop seeing President George W. Bush and declined to set a specific timetable for the withdrawal of US troops. (Ironically, the Sadrists may have succeeded in helping push al-Maliki to get a withdrawal timetable built into the Status of Forces Agreement he negotiated with the US in the course of 2008.
In the provincial elections of January, 2009, the various Shiite religious parties ran separately. The Islamic Mission Party or Dawa of PM al-Maliki did very well in Baghdad and Basra, though it did not win a majority in either place. Generally elsewhere it was in the 12 to 20 percent range. Critics charged that al-Maliki’s party did so well because he used strong man tactics against rival candidates. But I would argue, as well, that the incumbents suffered the wrath ofprovincial residents just because services are so bad in the Shiite south. Thus, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), which is close to the hard line ayatollahs in Iran, had ruled 9 of 11 provinces that had substantial Shiite populations, and it lost all 9 (in some provinces it used to run, it did shockingly badly). Likewise, the Islamic Virtue Party suffered a backlash in Basra.
The Sadrists are saying that they are engaged in ongoing negotiations with the UIA about a possible return to its fold. The Sadrists have also sometimes explored other alliances, including with secularists.
The Islamic Virtue Party is in a shambles.
Chalabi seems to be a point man in putting the old UIA back together. Since Shiites are 60 percent of the electorate, if they have a united list to vote for, it could well allow them to assert their dominance of parliament once again.
But this time, Dawa could decide to go it alone, with all the advantages of al-Maliki’s incumbency.
The grand ayatollahs, at least, are hedging their bets.
Meanwhile, al-Maliki flew to Kurdistan on Sunday for talks with the newly reelected Kurdish officials on Kirkuk and on oil revenue- sharing for the Kurdish regions of Iraq.
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