Babak Rahimi is a professor of communication, culture, and religions at the University of California, San Diego. He has written extensively upon Shia Islam, Iran, and Iraq. In April 2013, Iraq is due for the next round of provincial elections. The country’s Shiite religious parties have had contentions relations, coming together during some periods, only to turn on each other at another. This year’s balloting will again test the ties that bind and repel these lists. Below is an interview with Professor Rahimi about the fortunes of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and the Sadr Trend, as they will be major players behind Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law list in this year’s vote.
1. The Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) came out of the 2005 elections controlling eight provinces including Baghdad, and was a leader in the United Iraq Alliance, the largest list in parliament. Since then it has fallen on hard times. In the 2009 provincial balloting for example, they only held onto one governorate. What do you think has caused such a reversal of fortune for the party after its initial success?
Two factors have most likely played a role in a reversal of fortune for the party: (1) the level of corruption by ISCI while they were part of the United Iraq Alliance, and (2) the rise of the Sadrists as a political force since 2006. The Sadrists as a centralized nationalist movement successfully spread their influence throughout southern Iraq, except certain regions like Basra, and managed to prevent ISCI from gaining electoral power in major Shiite dominated regions. Also, it is highly likely that ISCI’s historic ties with Iran played a role in their decline between 2005 and 2009.
2. How do you think the passing of the list’s patriarch Abdul Aziz al-Hakim affected the Supreme Council?
Aziz al-Hakim’s death was significant for the party. While alive, Aziz al-Hakim’s influence over Shia Iraqi politics was considerable, especially during the period of sectarian tensions and civil war when various Shia militia groups emerged to challenge the established Shia parties like ISCI. Aziz al-Hakim was an experienced political and military leader. He was in charge of the Badr Crops during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. In many ways, his son Ammar Hakim lacks the expertise and also his father’s political-religious status. This has caused considerable problems for ISCI since 2009.
Supreme Council head Ammar al-Hakim has attempted to rejuvenate his party, but he’s also been a source of dissension (LA Times)
3. What has Ammar al-Hakim done to try to turn the party around?
He has been trying to play the role of an intermediately figure between Najaf, the seat of Shia learning and host to number of a high-ranking clerics, and Washington. He has also focused on expanding social services in impoverished neighborhoods in Baghdad and other major cities as a way to compete with the Sadrists. The impact of this policy could become evident in the next electoral process.
4. Recently the former militia of the ISCI, the Badr Organization split from the party. What was the cause of this division?
The cause of division was a power struggle between the old guard, who criticized Ammar for his lack of experience and status, and those who saw the leadership of the organization around the bloodline of the Hakim clan. In many ways, the division has caused considerable damage to ISCI’s political influence in Iraq.
5. In April 2013 Iraq is due for the next round of provincial elections. How do you think the Supreme Council will do?
I do not think ISCI will be very successful, mostly because the party has been out maneuvered by the Sadrists and other Shia groups, especially in the southern provinces like Basra. ISCI lacks both strong leadership and organizational reach, as in contrast to the Sadrists.
6. In recent years Moqtada al-Sadr has tried to portray himself as something of a statesman, while still trying to appeal to the street. Do you think those policies have allowed him to expand his base at all?
Yes, I think so, although not to an extent that could make him into a non-sectarian national figure. Sadr’s latest strategy has been the launch of an anti-corruption campaign in the government, specifically through the Commission of Integrity, and of course this is meant for electoral gain, and also a way to challenge Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s influence.
Sadr has maintained his alliance with PM Maliki despite their differences (Wired)
7. The relationship between Sadr and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has always been rough, but in the 2009 elections, the two ended up joining together to shut out the Supreme Council from many governorships. That continued after the 2010 voting, as Sadr was instrumental in keeping Maliki in office. Can you see the two sticking together again in this year’s voting or will they finally be parting ways?
I think a Maliki-Sadr alliance will primarily depend on how other political factions, including the Kurds, will realign their positions in weeks to come. My hunch is that Sadr will continue his “marriage of convenience” with Maliki until he feels comfortable to stand as an independent political force, without the need to seek the support of Dawa party to form a government. If in the next elections the Sadrists win more votes I think we could see a possible breakup of this alliance, which could change the Iraqi political landscape.
8. Overall, it seems like the Shiite religious parties have tried to close ranks to hold onto power when it counts. Can this last or do you think the internal rivalries between the leaders will ultimately drive them apart?
Since 2009 I have been arguing that Iraq is slowly but surely entering a post-sectarian political era. Many in Washington, and certain academic circles, disagree. They still use sectarian categories to describe the post-election politics of Baghdad, ultimately failing to see how local and personal politics, group-network alliance, regardless of religion, is slowly changing Iraqi politics.
Ultimately, down the road, I do not think religion will be the defining feature of Iraqi party politics. But this depends on both internal and external factors that could impact the way political factions align or reshape themselves in Iraq’s parliamentarian political system.