The Middle East Channel

Why Anbar voted for Allawi

  The Sunni vote in last month’s Iraqi election produced some real surprises, from the runaway success of Ayad Allawi’s al-Iraqiyaa list to the poor performance of a number of prominent leaders of the Anbar Awakening. Why? Partly because of strategic voting, partly because of a deep desire for security (aman) and secular (almani) non-sectarian leadership. But ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images


The Sunni vote in last month’s Iraqi election produced some real surprises, from the runaway success of Ayad Allawi’s al-Iraqiyaa list to the poor performance of a number of prominent leaders of the Anbar Awakening. Why? Partly because of strategic voting, partly because of a deep desire for security (aman) and secular (almani) non-sectarian leadership. But even more, because of a striking difference in organizational capacity, as many well-known leaders failed to put together the kind of electoral machine necessary to compete. The importance of organization is a part of the story which has been missing in many of the most popular post-election accounts of what’s going on in Iraq.

When I first went to Iraq in 2007, I interviewed many Iraqis about their lives since 2003 in an attempt to understand their motivations for participation in violence. The interviews revealed a few broader insights into the thinking of Iraqis, particularly Sunnis. First, they overwhelmingly expressed a desire was for leadership that could bring security (aman) to the country and was also non-sectarian or secular (almani).  I speak only a smattering of Arabic, but in interviews I heard those two terms so frequently that they are burned into my memory.

Second, my colleagues and I asked a series of questions about political leadership in Iraq, culminating in the question: "Who is the best leader for Iraq?" The overwhelming answer even then (late 2007) was "Ayad Allawi." This came as something of a surprise at the time.  Allawi had been pummeled in the election only two years before and was not perceived as a major power player in Iraqi politics. This was doubly surprising coming from the mouths of so many Sunnis, at a time of intense sectarian conflict, as Allawi is Shia. Why would he be rated a better leader than say Sheikh Abd al Sattar Bezia al-Rishawi of the Anbar Awakening or other prominent Sunni politicians? Yet in the context of aman and almani it made perfect sense to Iraqis and especially Sunnis. Allawi was seen to have been aggressive in operations in 2004 against both al Qaeda and the Mahdi Army giving him credibility in terms of both security and secularism. As one Sunni interviewee it put it, "Allawi is a hard man but this is necessary… He smashed Fallujah [Sunni] but he also smashed Najaf [Shia]."

The fact that Allawi’s Iraqiyya coalition did so well, and particularly among Sunnis, is neither surprising nor did not emerge from the ether. Allawi has been positioning himself on both the security and secular fronts for years but particularly on the latter, where his alliance with Saleh Mutlaq has cemented his secular credentials. It is in the credible claim to be secular that Allawi dominates Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Both can make credible claims about bringing security through law and order, but over the course of 2009, Maliki lost much of the secular credibility he gained in 2008 with operations against Shia militias in Basra and Amara. The banning of many candidates on de-Ba’athification grounds in January, whether actually legitimate or not, was an exclamation point on this loss of secular credibility in the eyes of Sunni voters.

This left Iraqiyya only a couple of potential rivals for the national Sunni vote. The first, the Iraqi Islamic Party-dominated Tawafuq list, has not covered itself in glory over the past few years and it is certainly not seen as secular. The Iraqi Unity list headed by Shia Interior Minister Jawad Bolani, which like Iraqiyya included some prominent Sunni leaders, had probably the best chance of pulling Sunni votes away from Iraqiyya.

Yet some of its principal Sunni affiliates were problematic. Sheikh Abdul Ghafour al-Sammurai heads the religious Sunni Waqf (Endowment) and has made some rather strong anti-Shia statements in the past, hardly conducive to being seen as secular. The Sons of Iraq leader Abu Azzam (aka Thamir Kadhim al-Tammimi) is a former nationalist insurgent from Abu Ghraib. This has made him seem opportunistic to some, and at any rate whatever influence he has is only in the Abu Ghraib/Ibrahim bin Ali areas west of Baghdad. A third affiliate, businessman Saad al-Janabi, was banned from the election.

However, at least two of Iraqi Unity’s Sunni members should have been able to do better.  Anbar Awakening leader Sheikh Ahmad Bezia al-Rishawi (Abu Risha) and former Defense Minister Sadoun al-Dulaimi both have roots in Anbar province and combine strong security credentials with a general non-sectarian viewpoint. Yet despite this, Iraqi Unity polled a distant third in Anbar, far behind Iraqiyya and lagging even Tawafuq. The nationwide performance of Iraqi Unity was similarly anemic, with Tawafuq seeming to beat it out for the Sunni votes that didn’t go to Iraqiyya. A smattering of Shia votes in places like Muthanna and Karbala appears to have pushed the nationwide vote total for Iraqi Unity ahead of Tawafuq.  However, the greater provincial concentration of Tawafuq’s votes mean it will end up with six seats to Iraqi Unity’s four.

I think these election results tell us three things about Sunni politics and the future of the Sunni community. The first is that the simple but profound desire for "aman and almani" continues to be potent; indeed, I am surprised it has not been adopted as slogan by Iraqiyya.  This also points to the continued existence of genuine nonsectarian nationalism in at least the Arab parts of Iraq. The second and related point is that the days of Sunni pure lists like Tawafuq appears to be over. Sunni parties will have to find a Shia partner to have leverage at the national level.

Third, and a bit less obvious but more important, Sunni politicians come in two flavors: those who can organize (or institutionalize) and those who can’t. The former are crushing the latter and nowhere is this more obvious than Anbar. The Iraqi Islamic Party, whatever its failings, was organized as a disciplined clandestine party during Ba’ath rule. It knows how to set up committees, create specialized sub-units, getting out the vote, and all the boring but critical steps for making things happen systematically. Saleh Mutlaq knows how to do these things as well. The tribal leaders of Anbar, be it Sheikh Ahmad, or his friendly foes Sheikh Ali Hatim al-Assafi and Hamid Heiss al-Thiyabi, don’t. It seems that Sadoun al-Dulaimi doesn’t either. As a result, these leaders were selected out of the system.

During the Saddam years, the Shia resistance parties built up their organizational skills while the Sunnis could either join the Ba’ath or the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP). So most of the Sunni that can organize are either Ba’athists (ex or not) and therefore deeply suspect to the Shia or are IIP Islamists, who don’t really appeal to large numbers of Sunni much less Shia. In other words- the Saleh Mutlaqs do well but are likely to get banned while the IIP will be a marginal player.  Nor did the tribes translate well into electoral organization. Muttamar Sahawat al-Iraq aka Sahwat al-Iraq was and is more a collection of individual fiefdoms in semi-orbit around the Abu Risha core than a modern political party. The USMC and to a lesser extent Iraqi Police always provided the organizational backbone for security operations — this didn’t translate into political organization.

This was apparent even in last year’s provincial election in Anbar. The tribal leaders believed they would romp to victory over the Iraqi Islamic Party, which had done little with its years of dominance in the province. Instead, Saleh Mutlaq’s party won the plurality, with Sheikh Ahmad’s party slightly behind in second and the Iraqi Islamic Party only a couple of percentage points behind in third. The other tribal leaders polled single digits. This was despite a widespread "throw the bums out" mentality about the Iraqi Islamic Party and the fact that Mutlaq had only begun seriously organizing in Anbar in 2008. If the showing for Allawi’s party in the Anbar provincial election is added to Mutlaq’s it would represent nearly a quarter of the votes, even though it too had only begun organizing seriously in Anbar in 2008.

By 2010, the temporary advantages of the tribal leaders over Iraqiyya and the Iraqi Islamic Party had faded, making the contest one primarily about organizational capacity. Unsurprisingly, the tribal leaders were smashed, with the total votes for Iraqi Unity (Sheikh Ahmad), State of Law (Sheikh Ali Hatim), and the Iraqi National Alliance (Hamid Heiss) combined barely equaling the votes for the Iraqi Islamic Party and less than a fifth that of Iraqiyya.

Nor is this a uniquely Anbari phenomenon; as one U.S. government analyst commented to me late last year "Iraq is full of Sunni ‘parties of one." This Sunni organizational weakness, apart from Mutlaq and the Iraqi Islamic Party, is in contrast to the Shia parties. Both Dawa and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, like the Iraqi Islamic Party, were created to oppose the Ba’ath regime and by necessity were disciplined and well-organized. The Sadrist Trend is perhaps a bit less disciplined as it is a newer organization but nonetheless it is well organized. Combined with overall demographic advantage, this Shia organizational advantage could doom the Sunni to marginalization no matter how free and fair the election. Despite Iraqiyya’s encouraging plurality for the "aman and almani" viewpoint, Sunni organizational deficiency does not bode well for the community’s future.

Austin Long is an assistant professor at the School of International and Public Affairs and a member of the Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University.

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