Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1328, (19 - 25 January 2017)
Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Issue 1328, (19 - 25 January 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Iraqi Shia bloc heads for splits

The coalition that has held together key Iraqi Shia groups since the fall of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein is fraying, writes Salah Nasrawi

Iraqi Special Operations Forces react after a car bomb exploded during an operation to clear Al-Andalus district of Islamic State militants, in Mosul (photos: Reuters)
Iraqi Special Operations Forces react after a car bomb exploded during an operation to clear Al-Andalus district of Islamic State militants, in Mosul (photos: Reuters)

On 26 December, Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr travelled from his residence in the holy city of Najaf to Baghdad for a previously unannounced meeting with Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi for what the cabinet office described as talks on “political issues” and the war against the Islamic State (IS) terror group.           

The visit was seemingly spontaneous, surprising many within the Iraqi political arena as the powerful Shia cleric, who leads a populist anti-establishment movement, has never before visited a sitting prime minister at his office.

The get-together also came amid rising tensions between Al-Sadr’s followers and Al-Abadi’s Dawa Party in the aftermath of ferocious protests by Sadrists against the Dawa Party’s leader, former prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki.

Neither Al-Sadr nor Al-Abadi have disclosed details of their discussions. Yet, according to analysts the message behind the extraordinary encounter is likely to be the widening divisions among Iraq’s main Shia factions.

Nearly 14 years after they rose to power following the fall of the Sunni-dominated regime of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi Shia political groups seem now to be heading towards a sharp split that is threatening the Shia coalition’s implosion.

The intensified power struggle has brought a flurry of fresh predictions of an end to the main Shia groups’ free reign before the 2018 parliamentary elections, which are widely seen as the next crucial political event that may determine Iraq’s future.

Despite winning three elections since Saddam’s fall in 2003, due largely to its intensive mobilisation of the country’s large Shia majority, the Shia grand coalition has remained fragile, with its political factions divided over power and loyalty.

One fresh sign of the decline of the Shia Iraqi National Alliance emerged last month when Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani refused to meet its leader, Ammar Al-Hakim, when the later travelled to Najaf to seek an audience with the top Shia cleric.

Al-Sistani, the main force behind the Iraqi Shias’ rise to power following the collapse of Saddam’s regime, has shown increasing dismay at the Shia leaders’ ineptitude, corruption and disunity.

In recent months, the Iraqi Shia groups have been bickering over competing claims and ambitions to run the government. The row has grown out of predictions that next year’s elections will produce a new political map in Iraq that will see the rise of the Shia militias that have been fighting IS and the diminishing power of the traditional Shia political groups.

The expectations, however unsettling they may seem, have pitted two of the key Shia factions, the Dawa Party and the Sadrist Movement led by Al-Sadr, in a fierce struggle against each other to try to avoid any dramatic shift in Shia politics that could undermine their electoral terrain and ambitions to be Iraq’s strongest Shia movements.

Having been at loggerheads with Al-Abadi over the government’s performance and policies, Al-Sadr’s new bid to reach out to the prime minister seems to have been carefully crafted to show support for Al-Abadi, who is fighting his own battle to stave off Al-Maliki’s influence over the Dawa Party and the Shia alliance.

Last summer, Al-Sadr mobilised his supporters against Al-Abadi’s government, accusing it of failing to make good on promises to carry out reforms in response to the widespread protests that had taken place against rampant government corruption and poor services.

Tens of thousands of Iraqis answered Al-Sadr’s call and took to the streets of Baghdad to join the protests that rocked the capital and culminated in the invasion of the Green Zone where government offices, parliament and foreign missions are based.

In what appeared to be Al-Sadr muscle-flexing in the Shia power struggle, he himself led one of the biggest protest rallies and urged the crowds to continue their protests until the government had met demands to implement “fundamental” reforms.

The expansive approach by the former firebrand cleric was seemingly designed to recast Al-Sadr as a man of all the people and a fervent Iraqi nationalist who upholds the democratic process by non-violent means.

But Al-Sadr’s drive was clearly also aimed at the Dawa Party and at Al-Maliki personally. Al-Sadr believes that Al-Maliki is planning a comeback after next year’s elections and wants to stop him from doing so.

One of Al-Sadr’s main demands is for the setting up of a new and independent elections commission to replace the current body whose members were chosen by Al-Maliki’s government out of fears that they will try to influence the balloting.

Last month, Al-Sadr’s followers organised massive protests against Al-Maliki during a campaign trip to several southern cities in Iraq. In Basra, Nasiriyah and Amara, Al-Maliki was forced to cancel rallies by his Dawa Party after Sadrist crowds stormed the venues and scuffled with Al-Maliki supporters.

In reaction, the Dawa Party mobilised its members and threatened an anti-Sadrist military campaign similar to the one led by Al-Maliki in 2008 against the Jaish Al-Mahdi (the Al-Mahdi Army).

The second reason behind Al-Sadr’s anxiety is the rise of the Shia militias. Al-Sadr, who rose to prominence during the US occupation of Iraq, had capitalised on Iraqi patriotism to launch his Jaish Al-Mahdi in a bid to oust the Americans.

But the surge of the Shia militias fighting IS has now made him feel threatened by these muscle-bound rivals, who he fears could enter Iraq’s political arena.

Al-Sadr’s main worry is that with the resurging militias and their jaw-dropping performance in the war against IS, his Sadrist Movement and its armed wing will no longer be the only player in Iraq’s Shia ring.

Al-Sadr’s concern is that these war-tested militias may start fighting with him for influence and authority in his traditional constituency of the poor and disfranchised Shia following their successes in the war against IS.

His worst nightmare is that these militias will obtain enough votes in the next elections to rival the power and influence of his Al-Ahrar bloc in parliament, which currently has 34 seats.

He also fears that the militias will line up with Al-Maliki’s Dawa Party to assemble a new Shia alliance that would be able to lead a new government and isolate the Sadrist bloc.

Meanwhile, the Dawa Party, which has dominated the Iraqi government since Saddam’s fall, seems to be on the brink of dissolution amid fierce competition between Al-Maliki’s and Al-Abadi’s opposing factions.

Insiders expect the personal rivalry between Al-Maliki and Al-Abadi to explode into a division of the party, as their two factions prepare to field candidates separately in local elections due later this year and in the 2018 general elections.

On the other hand, the weakest of the three main ruling Shia political groups, the Supreme Islamic Council in Iraq (SICI), is also stuck in the doldrums.

The SICI, which holds several key posts in Al-Abadi’s government, has lost much of its popularity since the last elections due to its inability to fix Iraq’s many dysfunctions, and many Shia now find it hard to figure out what, if anything, it stands for.

The SICI’s fate now probably depends on how far its leader, Ammar Al-Hakim, will be able to exploit his rotating presidency of the Shia coalition to fill the space it has lost.

As the bickering continues to deplete the main Shia political parties, the Shia militias are expected to make significant gains as they pose as the military force that fought the IS militants alongside the security forces.

Although a law enacted in November to establish the Popular Mobilisation Force also bans this paramilitary force, which functions as an umbrella for the militias, from taking part in the elections, the militias are widely expected to go off-script and field candidates in the poll anyway.

Some of the militias, such as the Badr Corps and the Asaab Ahl Al-Haq, already have members of parliament, while others have expressed their preparedness to participate in the elections, claiming that their candidates will be from their political wings.

Thanks to the robust political mobilisation of Iraq’s Shia majority population for empowerment after Saddam’s ouster, the Shia political parties have been able to retain a strong presence in the parliament and maintain their control of the government.

But 14 years on, the main Shia groupings, thanks to their incompetence and miserable failure in state-building, are much weaker than they were in 2003, and their coalition of necessity, which held such promise for their community, has ended up fractious and divided.

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