Secular National Iraqi List of Allawi reported to have surged in Sunni Arab Provinces; Implications for Iran, US

Sunday’s vote for a new parliament in Iraq on Sunday could result in two possible geopolitical futures for that country.

If the Iraqi National List of former interim prime minister Iyad Allawi did well enough to come to power, that would reorient Iraq radically, taking it back in some ways to 2002. Allawi’s coalition is largely made up of Arab nationalists who would see Iran as a threat and would ally with Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt. Baghdad would go back to helping contain Iran. Sunni Arab radicalism would likely be tamped down. For Washington, it would be the best of all possible worlds– a pro-American Iraqi government headed by a former CIA asset that is willing to help pressure Iran for the West. Internally, an Allawi government that depends heavily on Sunni Arab constituencies would find it difficult to compromise with the Kurds on the disputed province of Kirkuk or on Kurdistan’s interests in Ninevah and Diyala, setting the stage for a potential civil war.

If, on the other hand, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki manages to hold on to power, Iraq will remain firmly in Shiite hands, and will likely have warm relations with Tehran. Certainly, Baghdad would have no interest in helping contain Iran. Relations with Saudi Arabia will continue to be bad. As the US withdraws, Iranian influence could ramp up and fill the vacuum. Al-Maliki also has his tensions with the Kurds, but his relatively bad relations with the Sunni Arabs of Mosul mean that he could deal with the Kurds without incurring much more enmity from the Sunni Arabs than he already does.

So those are the two possibilities facing Iraq– roughly, reintegration into the Sunni-dominated Arab League, or an Iran alliance. In a way, the choices replicate those of the 1930s, Iraq’s first decade of independence from Britain. The government of PM Hikmat Sulaiman in 1936-1937 rejected Arab nationalism and developed good relations with Iran. Sulaiman was a Turkmen and he served under the military dictatorship of Bakr al-Sidqi, a Kurd. There is a sense in which the al-Maliki-Talibani condominium of the past 4 years revives many geopolitical themes of the Sulaiman-Sidqi period. Their dire enemies were the Arab nationalist officers, who were focused on Palestine and felt more kinship with Egypt than with Iran. Allawi is more in that Arab nationalist tradition, though he is by heritage a Shiite.

Here is why I think the return of Allawi as prime minister is unlikely despite an apparently strong showing for his party in the elections.

The Saudi-owned pan-Arab London daily “The Middle East” [al-Sharq al-Awsat] is reporting that its correspondents are conveying an (unscientific) impression from exit polling that the Iraqi National List of Allawi is doing extremely well in the Sunni Arab provinces, and is running a strong second in the Shiite south (Kurds in the north typically vote only for Kurdish parties.) The report is rather breathless and I think the numbers are almost certainly exaggerated. It also alleges that current prime minister Nuri al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition is getting 40% of votes in the Shiite south, which may be true for Baghdad and Basra (it did nearly that well in the provincial elections last year), but it would represent a major change in voting patterns in rural Shiite provinces such as Maysan and Dhi Qar.

Even so, without an unexpected landslide in the south, Allawi is unlikely to become prime minister. He will need 163 seats out of 325 to govern, and there is probably no way for his coalition to deliver them. Even leading lists will likely get less that 100 seats, and so will need post-election coalition partners. That small parties willing to ally with Allawi would have as many as 75 seats to deliver to him seems unlikely. So he’d have to deal with the big three–the State of Law, the National Iraqi Alliance, and the Kurdistan Alliance (or the Kurdistan parties generally). But they might well decline to deal with him, and could seek to exclude him instead.

Al-Maliki’s State of Law list campaigned hard against the resurgence of Baathism, and Allawi and many on his list are ex-Baathists, so al-Maliki would have to eat a lot of crow to accept a junior position in an Allawi government. It seems unlikely, even if politics makes for strange bedfellows.

The Shiite religious parties grouped in the National Iraqi Alliance are said by the exit polls (for the little they are worth) to be coming in third. They are also highly unlikely to ally with Allawi, since he is an old-time CIA asset and ex-Baathist whose interim government was hostile to the Shiite religious authorities and to Iran.

Allawi appears to be attracting strong support in Ninevah Province in the north, which returned an Arab nationalist party in the provincial elections of 2009. Ninevah has a Sunni Arab majority and a Kurdish minority, but the Kurds had been dominant in provincial government and the security forces because the Sunnis had sat out the provincial elections of January 2005. There is very bad blood between the Arabs and Kurds in Ninevah.

So Allawi will find it difficult to ally with the Kurds while keeping his Sunni Arab nationalist base. (Update: I incorrectly said earlier that it takes two thirds to elect a president, but this rule was changed so that it is only on the first try; if parliament cannot elect a president by 2/3s, it can do so on the second ballot by 51 percent. That this is so strengthens my argument that the Shiites and Kurds could outmaneuver Allawi.)

Whereas the numbers don’t easily add up for Allawi, it seems likely that the State of Law, the Shiite fundamentalist parties of the NIA, and some smaller parties willing to join the two of them, could easily get to over 163, and they have a proven ability to work with the Kurds and independents.

As I suggested Sunday, one price al-Maliki might have to pay to gain the National Iraqi alliance as a partner is to agree to accelerate the US troop withdrawal (a key demand of the Sadr faction in the NIA).

Whatever the outcome of the voting (and a projected result based on one-third of the votes is scheduled to be announced on Wednesday), it may not be easily accepted by the losers. There is tremendous anxiety in Iraq about the possibility of ballot fraud in the wake of Sunday’s parliamentary elections. The Iranian Arabic-language satellite station al-Alam reported on Sunday that the Shiite fundamentalist Sadr movement was alarmed to hear that ballot boxes were being transported from the provinces to Baghdad by US troops, and insisted that the US be kept away from those boxes. (They must have heard about Florida in 2000). Allawi is on Aljazeera complaining about irregularities. He didn’t say this, but campaigning continued through Sunday although it was supposed to be forbidden after Friday late afternoon. In Basra, al-Hayat reports that anti-Allawi pamphlets were dropped by helicopter on Saturday and Sunday.

Bottom line, another Allawi prime ministership is unlikely even if his list turns in strong performance.

End/ (Not Continued)

9 Responses

  1. Great analysis, but gives the Iraqi politicians too much credit and integrity.

    The Kurds will be given all kinds of promises by ALL the others. That has always been the pattern, but those promises were forgotten where it mattered.

    The Sunni VP is actually in a formal alliance with Barzani and Talabani (one of many) while the Sadarists, and most ordinary Shi'a, are vehemently opposed to what they see as Kurdish separatism. So, the assumption that the Sunnis are against Kursdistan and Shi'as in favor is based on the old Bush map of Iraqi politics, not the reality now.

    Billions of dollars are at stake, literally, for the winners. There is absolutely no restriction on who might partner with whom. This is why the horse-trading will run and run, even indefintely unless the Americans and Iranians step-in.

  2. I was surprised when the young Iraqi woman in Mosul who voted for the first time excited reported the Iraqya list did very well in her area as well as a couple of others. Your comments seem to validate her understanding link to livesstrong.blogspot.com

    I wonder if the diaspora would more likely vote for a secular option than a sectarian one?

  3. It's worth remembering that Iraq was independent from Britain as Cuba was from the US in the 1930s, or as East Germany and Czechoslovakia were independent form the Soviet Union in the 1950s.

    The same independence Iraq would have under Allawi. I wonder how Americans would take to having the "asset" of a foreign intelligence service for President.

  4. The only question that matter is whether we immediately and completely get out of Iraq, and Afghanistan as well. Of course, this will not be happening and we are even now planning for more war in Somalia. *

    * link to democracynow.org

    March 8, 2010

    U.S.-Backed Somali Troops Prepare Major Offensive
    By Amy Goodman

    In news from Africa, the New York Times reports the U.S. is helping the Somali government prepare a major offensive to take the capital of Mogadishu from Islamist militants. Over the past six months, Somalia has farmed out young men to Djibouti, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya and Sudan for military instruction and most are now back in the capital, waiting to fight. So far most of the U.S. military assistance to the Somali government has been focused on training but U.S. official told the Times he expects U.S. covert forces will get involved in the offensive. The official said: “What you’re likely to see is airstrikes and Special Ops moving in, hitting and getting out.

  5. The fundamental issue is what it has always been: you cannot have an electoral democracy without a democratic political culture, and that includes people's primary loyalty being to the concept of the nation state. So long as the idea of Iraq comes second in the minds of a substantial portion of the populace to some other idea — Kurdistan, religious sect, faction or tribe — elections won't settle matters and instability will always loom.

    Unfortunately, there has not been enough effective leadership that has stood up for Iraq as a unifying idea.

  6. "but it will take a multi-party coaltion of 215 or so members of parliament to elect a president."

    Not true, Mr Cole. The interim provisions of the constitution no longer apply – you can elect the President with a simple majority now. See link to en.wikipedia.org

  7. Juan,

    You were not mistaken in the terms of the Iraqi President's election. It still requires a two-thirds majority in the CoR. It is only if no candidate reaches the two-thirds bar in the first ballot that the two leading candidates compete in a second ballot and only then would a simple majority suffice to win. (Art 70)

    I'm not sure where English European is drawing his conclusions from. The Wikipedia article is vague. I'm looking at the 144-article version of the 2005 constitution – which remains unamended as far as I'm aware.

    Andy Scheidl

  8. Link to the NYT Somalia article mentioned above.

    I know its off topic but its just seems remarkable that, what is in reality a Pentagon designed and initiated intensification of a civil war in a broken down impoverished country, should be treated so casually by the press. And probably unknown to 99% of the US population.

    Our air strikes and "special ops" will pick off whoever they please, blow up whatever they want, then leave behind all the misery and bloodshed of this little "designer" war we thought might be good for Somalians at this juncture.

  9. Although none of the highly paid political pundits on the Sunday talk shows will say it or any editor from a national newspapers will write about it, the latest Parliamentary election in Iraq has proven yet again that the people of Iraq outclass their American counterparts in two important aspects; they are more civic minded and have less fear than most Americans. Supporting this argument is the fact that even though facing threats of murder and terrorism, 70 percent of eligible Iraqi citizens voted in a recent election in their country, while in America, the average voter turnout in American elections has never been over 60 percent in the last 30 years. For the international relations political analyst who tries to explain why the Iraqi’s participate more in elections than their American counterparts, the answer appears to be that both American voters and the politicians running for office in America are filled with fear and doubt, while Iraqi citizens and their politicians running for office appear to be filled with hope and courage.

    link to pinione.blogspot.com

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