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A Litmus Test

Saturday 31 January 2009, by Reidar Visser

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari arrived in Basra on January 24. His mission in the southern oil port was to stump for his Reformist Front, a breakaway faction of the Da‘wa Party of the current premier, Nouri al-Maliki, ahead of Iraq’s January 31 provincial elections. His itinerary included visits to the Five Miles area — often described as a stronghold of the movement loyal to the young Shi‘i leader Muqtada al-Sadr — as well as a rally at a sports stadium. Only days earlier, he had been preceded by Maliki himself, and in the first days of 2009 numerous other national politicians trooped to Basra as well.

The barnstorming of political figures from Baghdad through the country’s various localities is but one of several ways in which the 2009 provincial elections differ from the contests of January 2005, the purple-finger moment that was much celebrated at the time, but in retrospect was the backdrop to Iraq’s slide into sectarian politics. Western press reports and governments are likely to focus on statistics such as the number of violent incidents or the number of parties running, but the true importance of this round of balloting hides beneath the surface. To a considerable extent, the results of the local elections will shed light on the dynamic of Iraqi politics, namely its degree of progress from an ethno-sectarian model to a system oriented around ideological issues and candidate qualifications. The results will also set the stage for even more important events on the Iraqi political calendar, the choice of a new parliamentary speaker and the national elections scheduled for December.


Participation in the 2009 provincial elections is far more extensive than in 2005. In 2005, most Sunni Arabs, answering the calls of communal leaders for a boycott or fearing insurgent attacks, abstained from the voting, and only one party with an explicit “Sunni” profile, the Iraqi Islamic Party, ran candidates. This time, the Iraqi Islamic Party will face challenges from numerous political forces originating in Sunni Arab circles. Sunni Arab participation will likely also contribute to dramatic changes in the Diyala, Salah al-Din and Nineveh governorates east and north of Baghdad, where, due to the boycott, Kurds and Shi‘i Islamists wound up in control of provincial councils despite their status as minorities. It is sometimes maintained that another difference from 2005 is the absence of Shi‘i Islamist unity. But with the exception of the province of Wasit east of Baghdad, there was no Shi‘i coalition in local politics in 2005 similar to the United Iraqi Alliance in the national elections. Intra-Shi‘i competition did take place, and in certain areas, it was fierce. In Basra, for instance, the Fadhila Party raised the slogan “made in Iraq” against its Islamist competitors with a past in Iran. The real difference in 2009 is that overall participation is wider, with the Sadrists supporting two lists (in addition to “independents” in some areas), and with Da‘wa now a more prominent player, having drawn a brighter line between itself and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq.

Hence the second salient feature of the 2009 elections: greater competition centered on issues and candidates. Partners in Green Zone government since 2006, Da‘wa and the Supreme Council have developed significant disagreements over the past year about the basic political system of Iraq. Emboldened by his improved standing in the eyes of many Iraqis after the military operations in Basra and ‘Amara in 2008, Maliki, along with independent Shi‘i allies, is increasingly reverting to an Iraqi nationalist discourse that includes a tough stand on issues relating to Kurdistan, tentative moves away from sectarianism and hardline Islamism, and, most notably, centralism — the wish for a strong Baghdad government able to resist further devolution of the capital’s powers to the periphery. By the terms of the Iraqi constitution passed in October 2005, every province save Baghdad has the right to hold a referendum on becoming a “federal region” with significant autonomy from central government and/or to band together with other provinces in such a region. (The three majority-Kurdish provinces of the north were recognized as a federal region in the 2005 constitution.) Together with the Supreme Council, the Kurdish parties have pushed for an expansive agenda of provincial powers at the expense of the center, and this strong federalist program once seemed the wave of the future. Today, the idea of “re-centralization” has reached the point where the oil minister, Husayn al-Shahristani, has suggested that “the Baghdad government may have no alternative but to revert to the laws of Saddam in order to increase its production.”[1] The Sadrists, for their part, stress themes of Iraqi nationalism and professionalism, with a Basra representative going so far as to tell a news agency that Sadrists will not vote for established parties or those campaigning under religious or ethnic banners. Conversely, the Supreme Council is still approaching these elections in the spirit of 2005, with appeals to Shi‘i religious solidarity and a general push for decentralization (even if specific propaganda for its ideas about a Shi‘i super-province in the south of Iraq is now far rarer). Both the Supreme Council and Da‘wa are bullish about their chances in governorates south of Baghdad.

Maliki’s attempts to play the centralist card reflect something of a silent revolution in Iraqi politics between 2006 and 2008: a reversion to issue-oriented, cross-sectarian politics. It should be stressed that this reversion is an internal Iraqi trend that has little to do with the US “surge.” In fact, US policies have generally continued to embody support for a “mosaic” model of ethno-sectarian balance. The new phenomenon has been spearheaded by a loose coalition of opposition parliamentarians, known as the “July 22 bloc” because it first emerged during the July 22, 2008 vote on the provincial elections law. The July 22 bloc has a “coordinating committee” and is composed of Shi‘i Islamists from Fadhila and the Sadrist movement, secularists from the National Dialogue Front and the al-Iraqiyya faction of former interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, and members of the Sunni-identified Tawafuq grouping who dislike the sectarian orientation of its leading politicians. In the debate over the provincial elections law, the July 22 bloc tangled with the Kurds and the Supreme Council over the arrangements that would govern elections in the disputed city of Kirkuk. The dispute was unresolved, and there will be no elections in the Ta’mim province where Kirkuk is located. Away from Kirkuk, the frequent attacks by the July 22 parties on the concept of ethno-sectarian quotas in national politics, suggest that their goal is deeper reform of the political system in Iraq, possibly in the shape of a revised constitution.[2] Importantly, on some issues, Maliki and his Da‘wa supporters have sided with the opposition against the Supreme Council and the Kurdish parties, suggesting that there is potential for a breakup of Maliki’s coalition and even a change in government. Of course, Maliki has a difficult balancing act, as he himself came under Iraqi nationalist pressure from Sunnis and Shi‘a alike after security staff mistreated Muntadhar al-Zaydi, the journalist who greeted former President George W. Bush with his two shoes. If Maliki’s steps in the direction of centralism are to have a lasting impact and mark a definitive break with Iran, they will need to be anchored in institutional reform and constitutional revision rather than in flowery rhetoric.


To what extent this more mature kind of politics will be reflected in voter behavior on January 31 is unclear, however. First, it is important to remember that in Iraq, as elsewhere, all politics is local. Given the sectarian demography of the country, accentuated by the “sectarian cleansing” of the civil war, it would not be unusual for areas with large Shi‘i majorities to cast their ballots for Shi‘i-identified councillors. And vice versa for Sunni Arabs.

The electoral system — proportional representation within each governorate — was supposed to be more “open” in 2009, in the sense that there would be a greater possibility for voters to influence the race by using their one vote either for an individual placed far down on a party list or by voting for candidates running as individuals (technically these are one-person lists). In practice, though, the choices will be limited because the Iraqi elections commission has decided not to print full party lists for distribution to voters, which means that those who wish to rank certain candidates higher than others will have to consult a grand table of correspondence in the polling station. Voters’ rankings will be undercut, in any event, because within the multi-member party lists that win seats, the elections commission will promote female candidates regardless of their vote tallies in order to achieve 25 percent women’s representation on the provincial councils. (The “closed list” advocates, the Kurds and the Supreme Council, actively used the gender quota as an argument against greater openness.) Counting rules, too, favor the established parties, because surplus votes for an individual candidate who has secured election are wasted, whereas those accruing to a party list will accumulate and benefit another candidate on that list. This is another reason why the change from 2005 may not be as marked as some have hoped.

Concerns about the overall transparency of the Iraqi political system persist. As has happened before, the media outlet of the Iraqi parliament simply suspended broadcasts of its daily proceedings in the wake of the controversial resignation of Speaker of Parliament Mahmoud al-Mashhadani in late December 2008, so that more than one month later, the number of parliamentarians who backed this fateful decision (which leaves the parliament unable to conduct its normal business) remains unknown to the public. Similarly, while the Iraqi elections commission claims it has booked numerous “independent” observers to monitor the upcoming election, its handling of the Basra federalism initiative in January did not instill confidence. It is perfectly clear that the initiative failed, but the exact number of signatures gathered in support remained unknown one week after the formal end of the initiative, and the elections commission chose instead to publish two NGO reports full of praise for the commission and extolling the “triumph for democracy” that the Basra exercise represented. On the bright side, the Iraqi security apparatus is not a reliable tool of electoral manipulation, because the parties influential therein are themselves divided, with Da‘wa seeking inroads into Supreme Council and Kurdish fiefdoms in many governorates. This fact in itself probably creates a greater likelihood for diversity than in 2005.

Then there are those parties that prefer a 2005-like atmosphere for the elections, such as the Supreme Council and the Kurdish parties. Despite crystal-clear messages from the senior Shi‘i religious leadership that they support no particular party as well as limits on religious propaganda in the elections law adopted in September 2008, the Supreme Council has nevertheless tried to present itself as a party with special ties to the clergy, in addition to encouraging votes for the bigger, established entities.[3] Moreover, in early 2009, after Husayn al-Shami (a Shi‘i activist who has links to Da‘wa and is considered to be close to Nouri al-Maliki) ventured some critical remarks about Shi‘i rituals during Muharram, the month of the Islamic calendar when Shi‘i Muslims commemorate the death of Imam Husayn, the Supreme Council saw a opportunity to distinguish itself as the defender of “Shi‘i” interests. “Husayni rites” are complicated territory; in the past, many leading scholars have warned against aspects of them, such as self-flagellation. Even Sistani, supposedly the Supreme Council’s point of reference on such issues (as they themselves are not clerics qualified to render judgment), has issued reservations about violent self-flagellation. But the Supreme Council immediately confirmed their support for the rituals, thereby opening a rift in the Shi‘i community comparable in character if not in scope and intensity to a dispute in the 1920s when prominent scholars of Iranian and Lebanese origin warned against the same kind of practices.[4] Although Maliki, according to some reports,[5] relapsed into a religious Shi‘i agenda during Muharram, he is clearly on the defensive in the face of accusations of “abandoning” the Shi‘i cause, and has attacked the Supreme Council for exploiting the issue. And in Shi‘i religious circles, there has been an outburst of sectarian agitation denouncing “the enemies of the cause of Husayn,” criticizing Maliki for alleged rapprochement with Baathists and declaring that Shi‘a should “not vote for anyone who does not serve and love Husayn.”[6] In 2005, it was the Supreme Council that took the lead in branding Iyad Allawi as a neo-Baathist. As for the Kurdish parties, they have made attempts to delay the elections in Mosul and Diyala on procedural grounds, so that they could retain their high degree of influence established in 2005.[7]


To what extent Nouri al-Maliki will succeed in planting himself at the center of Iraqi politics remains to be seen. There are non-partisan polls, such as one from the Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies in October 2008, that clearly show greater admiration for Maliki than for other Iraqi politicians (with the two former premiers, Allawi and Jaafari, often second and third) and it seems very likely that some of the successes of the ethno-federalist forces in 2005 will be reversed, even if the well-organized Supreme Council may well benefit from strong party loyalties in certain constituencies that are not reflected in polling. Iraqi nationalism remains strong. In the same October 2008 poll, 69.8 percent of respondents identified themselves as “Iraqis,” 10.8 percent self-identified in ethnic terms and 6.2 percent referred to sects.

But the significance of Maliki’s outreach to the July 22 bloc and its ilk will not be clear until after the elections, when a new parliamentary speaker will be selected, and Maliki will be able to push constitutional reform prior to parliamentary elections in December. Iran is probably backing many horses on the Shi’i side, including some flirting with the July 22 bloc, which is why institutional change and constitutional reform alone will convince skeptical Iraqis of the sincerity of Maliki’s apparent turn to centralism. The composition of his electoral coalition for January 31 — mostly Shi‘i Islamists — suggests that he has not made decisive moves beyond traditional Da‘wa territory in terms of partners. On January 12, while rejecting party quotas, Da‘wa figures ‘Ali al-Adib and Kamal al-Saadi still spoke of sectarian quotas.[8] And why is Maliki’s list not running in Anbar, the quintessentially “Sunni” province of Iraq, if its goal is to represent all Iraqis instead of more wheeling and dealing among political elites? To Maliki’s credit, the attempts to circumscribe the use of religious symbols in the first drafts of the elections law probably would not have progressed at all without a green light from him. Similarly, there are now more uncertainties connected with the interpretation of Supreme Council successes: In areas outside Najaf, the Supreme Council’s political rhetoric has lately been less focused on specific federal schemes and more aimed at strengthening the existing governorates vis-à-vis the center.

In this context, it cannot escape notice that the United States and Iran are perceived by Iraqis to be on the same side in the struggle. When the name of Iyad al-Samarra’i of the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party was floated as a successor to Mashaddani as speaker, al-Sharqiyya television spread a rumor that he had been to Iran to be anointed as the new “Sunni” face of the Green Zone coalition headed by Iran’s oldest friend in Iraq, the Supreme Council, and their Kurdish partners. (The rumor has been denied by sources close to al-Samarra’i, who say he was in Britain on holiday with his family.) Iranian think tanks, for their part, make no bones about their preference for identity-based politics in Iraq at the expense of Iraqi nationalism.[9] At the same time, US officials in Baghdad have told the Washington Post that they are counting members of Maliki’s coalition who are ready to oust the premier (when, for the first time, he seems to be moving in the direction of what the Iraqi people want).[10] Other American analysts claim that “a functioning, Shiite-dominated Iraqi government with its sectarian blocs in check serves both American and Iranian objectives”[11] and speak of “the willingness of Sunni and Shiite leaders to establish and maintain order in their communities,”[12] as if we were still in 2006, or perhaps in the days of the Raj in India.

On January 23, the Supreme Council’s Sadr al-Din al-Qabbanji, a staunch Khomeinist who has been on Iran’s payroll for decades, jubilantly announced during Friday prayers in Najaf that the rhetoric of President Barack Obama signals the end of US dominance in Iraq.[13] This may be the case, but to what extent the US will be replaced by Iranian hegemony is something Iraqi voters will have to wait until the national elections slated for December to decide on. Only then is there likely to be a debate about the true fundamentals of Iraqi politics and a possibility for Iraqis to liberate themselves from the shackles of the sectarian logic that both Iran and the US have chosen as their preferred framework for influencing the politics of the country.

(Reidar Visser is a research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs and editor of the Iraq website

CORRECTION: Due to an editor’s error, the initial version of this article wrongly stated that Iran is backing parties that are formally part of the July 22 bloc. Iran likely backs parties that are friendly with the July 22 bloc, but they are not bloc members. We regret the error.

[1] Al-Sharq al-Awsat, September 20, 2008.

[2] As early as October 2007, Fadhila leaders criticized the “four-party alliance” (the Kurdish parties, the Supreme Council and Da‘wa) and presented as an alternative “national reconciliation…including those forces that remain outside the parliament.” Aswat al-Iraq, October 27, 2007. Most of the July 22 parties signed onto an explicit critique of ethno-sectarian quotas in a Fadhila press release around the provincial elections law debate.

[3] Aswat al-Iraq, January 3, 2009.

[4] Werner Ende, “The Flagellations of Muharram and the Shiite Ulama,” Der Islam 55 (1978).

[5] McClatchy, January 8, 2009.

[6] Buratha News, January 13, 2009.

[7] Aswat al-Iraq, December 8, 2008.

[8] Aswat al-Iraq, January 12, 2009.

[9] See, for instance, Kayhan Barzegar, The Shia Factor in Iran’s Foreign Policy (Tehran: Center for Strategic Research, November 2008).

[10] Washington Post, January 19, 2009.

[11] Ray Takeyh, “What Iran Wants,” Washington Post, December 29, 2008.

[12] Richard Haass and Martin Indyk, ”Beyond Iraq: A New US Strategy for the Middle East,” Foreign Affairs (January/February 2009).

[13] Aswat al-Iraq, January 23, 2009.

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