Voting in Iraq began early Sunday, and turnout appeared to be heavy. The BBC analysis is that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition will do well enough at the polls to again form the government, partnering with other religious Shiite parties. According to the Iraqi constitution, the party or coalition list with the largest number of seats, even if it is not a majority, will be given the first opportunity to form a government.
Al-Maliki, however, may well have to pay a price for remaining prime minister, if he can manage to do so, since that outcome would certainly require that he make a post-election coalition with the Shiite religious parties of the National Iraqi Alliance. The latter include the Sadr Movement and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. Muqtada al-Sadr, leader of the Sadr movement, said Saturday on the Iran-based al-Alam satellite channel that he would only support a prime ministerial candidate who agreed to accelerate the departure of the US from Iraq. Based on its performance in last year’s provincial elections, the Sadr Movement could well get half of the seats gained by the National Iraqi Alliance; if Sadrists did that well, they could be essential to putting together the 51 percent al-Maliki (or any other prime minister) would need to govern. Scroll down to see a translation of Sadr’s remarks, which are the first entry for Sunday below.
Moreover, it is not just al-Sadr. I detect a change in the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, now led by Ammar al-Hakim after the death from lung cancer of his father, Abd al-Aziz. The father had been sanguine about the presence of US troops in Iraq, and called for them to stay in the country, seeing them as a guarantor against the return of the Baathists (the secular Arab nationalists led by Saddam Hussein before his overthrow in 2003). Ammar al-Hakim was brought up in Iran and is close to Iranian hard liners. The US military once arrested him as he was sneaking across the border from Iran after a secret visit to Tehran that appears not to have involved any visas or border stations. In Ankara last winter, he referred to the US military as “occupation forces” and gave partial credit to ISCI for forcing them to withdraw on a timetable. But as late as January, even he was saying that the US presence in Iraq is not a major issue, since it has departed and the bases are being closed (he probably meant that it has decided to depart). He also, however, praised armed resistance to Israeli occupation and, on a trip to Beirut, laid a wreat at the tomb of Imad Mughniya, a radical Shiite whom the US and Israeli categorized as a terrorist.
Ammar has a say in who serves as the Friday Prayer leader and sermonizer at the mosque of the shrine of Ali in the holy city of Najaf, a position of great influence. It is now held by Sayyid Yasin al-Musawi. Al-Musawi’s sermon on last Friday in Najaf contained a number of themes that suggest that ISCI may be returning to its Khomeinist roots. Al-Musawi praised political obedience to the Shiite grand ayatollahs, not just spiritual obedience. That sounded close to the Khomeinist principle of the guardianship of the jurisprudent, or rule of the ayatollahs, which prevails in Iran. And he warned of conspiracies against Iraqi independence, saying that these conspiracies were launched by ‘global arrogance and the secularists.’
Now, ‘global arrogance’ is a technical term in political discourse among hard liners in Iran, and refers to the United States. I never heard an ISCI preacher use this phrase while Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim was leading the movement. Al-Musawi was warning of a US alliance with the secular National Iraqi List of Iyad Allawi aimed at keeping Iraq a colony of Washington.
(In fact, Karen DeYoung of WaPo reports that the Obama administration came to the conclusion that Washington had little chance of influencing the outcome of the election.)
That was the other change in terminology. Al-Musawi urged voters in Najaf to cast their ballots for those who will work for Iraqi independence and against ‘colonialism’ (al-isti`mar). Again, this term was not publicly foregrounded among leaders of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, since they had a rough alliance of convenience with Washington in overthrowing and marginalizing the Baath Party. But now the Friday prayers preacher of Najaf is denouncing global arrogance and openly calling Iraq a colonized country that must regain its independence. This point of view had more commonly been found among Iraqi Sunni Arabs or in the Sadr Movement, as well as among hard liners across the border in Iran.
So if ISCI has decided that it is now in its interest to push the US out on a shorter timetable, and is allied with Sadrists who think the same way, then they could make that acceleration of the withdrawal a precondition for joining al-Maliki’s coalition. Al-Maliki would not have many alternatives. He is unlikely to pair himself with Allawi, whom he sees as a dusted-off Baathist (al-Maliki campaigned against what he warned was resurgent Baathist influence in Iraq, though by that he seems to have meant simple Arab nationalism that threatened the dominance of the Shiite religious parties, including his Islamic Mission (Da`wa) Party). That stance will make it hard for him to get cooperation from the National Iraqi List. Al-Maliki is also too much of an Iraqi nationalist to have really warm and close relations with the Kurdistan Alliance, which wants to add Kirkuk to its holdings, a step that al-Maliki has generally opposed. Moreover, al-Maliki may not need much pressure to call for a quicker US departure. He has for some time insisted that the Iraqi military is perfectly capable of keeping order in the country, and he clearly chafed when Vice President Joe Biden attempted to intervene to reverse the disqualification of over 500 allegedly Baath-linked candidates.
Although some observers are hailing the possibility that ex-Baathist secularist Iyad Allawi could become prime minister, in part based on Sunni support, that scenario seems unlikely to me. In the early 2009 provincial elections, Allawi’s list only got 3 percent in the major southern Shiite province of Basra, and in most of the other 8 provinces with heavy Shiite populations it did equally poorly or was almost invisible in the returns; Qadisiya Province was the outlier, where Allawi gained about 8 percent of the vote, as he did in Baghdad. (For the provincial election returns, see my analysis of a little over a year ago.)
While it is true that Allawi has a bigger coalition this time, having been joined by secular Sunni Arabs, that won’t help him in the Shiite south. In December, 2005, his list got 9 percent of the vote, in part because of popularity in Basra, which seems to have substantially declined. His list only got 14 percent in the provincial elections in the Sunni province of Salahuddin, and 8 percent in al-Anbar, though admittedly he has more Sunni partners this time. The only way his list will be the largest in parliament is if virtually all the Sunni Arabs swing behind it and there has been a sea change in Basra, Baghdad and Diwaniya so that he does unexpectedly well among the urban Shiite middle classes (his major likely constituents in the Shiite south).
Since there is a ban on driving vehicles, guerrillas will not be able to use car bombs to disrupt the voting. They have therefore fallen back on firing mortar shells, as they did in January 2005. By 10:30 am Iraq time, some 24 dead were being reported in these attacks in north Baghdad and in Salahuddin Province, and the Green Zone that houses the US embassy and the Iraqi parliament had also been targeted.
Journalist Nir Rosen, who has spent a lot of time on the ground in the Red Zone in Iraq talking to real people, warns against the meme that the elections could bring a return of civil war or very major violence. I concur. My interviews with Sunni Arab Iraqis in Jordan suggest to me that that community is dejected and feels defeated, and is not looking foward to more violence.
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