The Middle East Channel

Elections and Iraq’s Never Ending Crisis

Iraq’s April 20 provincial elections were like two elections in one country. They included all provinces outside the Kurdistan region except Kirkuk, due to a long-standing dispute over election law, and the predominately Sunni provinces of Anbar and Ninawa, where the cabinet postponed elections under the pretext of security following a series of candidate assassinations. ...

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Iraq’s April 20 provincial elections were like two elections in one country. They included all provinces outside the Kurdistan region except Kirkuk, due to a long-standing dispute over election law, and the predominately Sunni provinces of Anbar and Ninawa, where the cabinet postponed elections under the pretext of security following a series of candidate assassinations. Elections are now set for July 4 in those two provinces.

The "Shiite election" covered the southern nine provinces plus Baghdad and parts of Diyala and Salah al-Din. In this election Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law Coalition (SLC) won a reduced plurality, large enough to keep alive any hopes Maliki might have of a third term following next year’s parliamentary elections, but too weak to provide him a clear mandate. Secular Shiite parties faired poorly, and most of the vote shifted to Islamists, likely in reaction against the excesses of recent Sunni protests. 

Maliki’s 33 percent plurality of seats elected from Shiite areas is less impressive than it may appear bearing in mind that the SLC won half of all Shiite seats in 2010, added additional parties, had overwhelming media dominance — including control of state al-Iraqiya TV — and yet loss substantial ground. The Sadrists also lost ground, going from 22 percent to 15 percent. Secular Shiite parties lost even more. The most prominent secular Shiite leader, Iyad Allawi, was practically wiped out in Shiite areas, winning just a single seat in the southern nine provinces.

The "Sunni election" likewise produced a winner but not an overwhelming one, with Speaker Osama al-Nujayfi’s Mutahidun ("Uniters") bloc winning an overall plurality while coming in second in Salah al-Din to Governor Abdullah al-Jiburi, who has worked in cooperation with Baghdad over the past year. Nujayfi’s primary Sunni rival was Deputy Prime Minister Salih al-Mutlak’s Arab Iraqiya, and it came well behind. Mutlak framed the campaign as its support for a nationalist, centralist, and secularist government against the Mutahidun’s Islamism and alliance with Turkey, Qatar, and the Kurds. But he has faced a torrent of derision from Sunni media for his ties to Maliki.

The Mutahidun’s victory is not a surprise. It is made up of most of the Sunni parties that were part of the Iraqiya coalition elected in 2010, has close ties to the protest movement, backing from the Sunni clerical establishment, and broad support from Sunni media outlets, both Iraqi and pan-Arab. Mutahidun’s loss in Salah al-Din is likely partially attributable to the fact that the head of its list, provincial council Chairman Ammar Yusuf al-Humud, became embroiled in a public scandal in the two months before the election over allegations of ties to an attack on the council building in 2010.

Iraq’s political scene has been dominated over the past five months by the rise of a vigorous and sometimes virulent Sunni protest movement, and it is pretty clear that whatever protest leaders may feel they have gained from backing the Mutahidun as the core anti-Maliki coalition, they have lost in terms of support from the Shiites, Iraq’s demographic majority. Of the seats lost by Maliki, Sadr, and Allawi, the Iran-backed Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) especially gained, winning second place with 19 percent of Shiite seats, way up from six percent in 2010. Part of the reason for this may be the ISCI is out of power, and with disaffection widespread over continued failure in public service provision, ISCI’s campaign rolled out a laundry list of public works it would sponsor if victorious. Maliki has total control of the security services and the Sadrists hold most of the service ministries, so this may have been a factor.

Yet two Shiite factions in power increased their share — the Fadhila Party, which is nationalist Islamist, and the Badr Organization, which is close to Iran, both of them running inside Maliki’s SLC. What they had in common is that both took hard lines on sectarian issues. Fadhila’s most senior office holder, Justice Minister Hassan al-Shimri, received a great deal of television time in the month before the election defending the government’s policy of moving forward with the execution of convicted terrorists, despite protests from Sunnis (such as this video from the Shiite al-Fayha TV).

By contrast, Allawi was the only Shiite leader to give unqualified support to the Sunni protests — he also reflexively supports the Kurds whenever they have a conflict with Baghdad — while the Sadrists and later Maliki gave qualified support. Sadrist support was primarily rhetorical, but very high-profile, while Maliki’s deal just before the election with Mutlak to reform and soften de-Baathification may have cost him.

From following the Sunni protests, it is not hard to see why this is. Protesters almost universally fly the flag of old Iraq, with the three stars representing the basic tenants of Baathism, and many protest speeches include anti-Shiite rhetoric or incitement, including calls for jihad. Even the relatively more moderate wing of the protests, based in Ramadi, Anbar, has framed Sunni demands in such a sweeping manner that no elected Shiite leader would assent to them, such as the complete repeal of de-Baathification. And they have been in total denial about there being a Sunni origin to terrorist attacks in Iraq, attributing their origin to Iran or the Shiite-led government.

Everything the Sunni leadership has done wrong was perhaps best encapsulated in a prime-time April 10 interview by Anbar Islamic Party leader Ahmad al-Alwani on al-Sumaria TV, Iraq’s primary mainstream channel. The Islamic Party (IP) is one of the components of the Mutahidun, and Alwani appears in many protest videos in Ramadi. Alwani started by noting that the cross-province protest organization meets at his home to decide on the week’s Friday sermon theme and approach to the government. The IP’s ties to the protests were never a secret, but also not usually stated so directly. Then Alwani slipped and referred to "the Shiite threat … I mean the Iranian threat." The interviewer suggested, "maybe this is what is in your heart?"

The hour-long interview only got worse. On terrorism, Alwani repeated the mantra that all terrorist attacks in Iraq, whether targeting Sunnis or Shiites, were planned by Iran or the Maliki government. When pressed for evidence that Iran was behind even al Qaeda-claimed attacks, Alwani said simply, "Many governments have said this, including the United States." Asked about allegations of ties to the Iraqi Hamas insurgent group, which is often tied to the Islamic Party, Alwani smiled and said, "No man, I’m al Qaeda." With dozens, sometimes hundreds of Iraqis dying weekly from terrorist attacks, one of the protests’ most visible figures seemed to think it was a joke. And then he finished the interview by noting, "The protests won’t always remain peaceful."

The election has weakened Maliki’s leverage just when he was finally starting to take real steps to meet legitimate Sunni grievances. Parliament is now tied in knots over the reforms. Maliki insisted on a law banning the Baath Party — essentially codifying a constitutional clause that already bans it — as a tradeoff for de-Baathification reform, and the result he just experienced in the election has only hardened that. Sunni Arab ministers, meanwhile, are resisting the Baath ban and only want to pass the de-Baathification reform. And indeed one suspects that Sunni members of parliament tied to the Mutahidun, which is a majority of them, are not eager to pass reforms now and give a victory to Mutlak before the electio
ns in Anbar and Ninawa.

If last month’s results are reproduced in parliamentary elections next year, Maliki’s putative third term will be in danger. While this might cheer those concerned about the prime minister’s authoritarian tendencies, the current electoral trend suggests his replacement may not be someone more to Sunni protesters’ liking.

Kirk H. Sowell is a political risk analyst based in the Washington DC area and the editor of Inside Iraqi Politics. Follow him on Twitter @uticensisrisk

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