Tuesday, February 3, 2009

International Crisis Group Report On Iraq’s Provincial Elections

Four days before Iraq’s January 31 provincial elections, the International Crisis Group released a report on the power struggles, perceptions, and institutions that would shape the vote. The provincial councils can set local agendas, spend money, direct reconstruction, and collect taxes. Their budgets however are set by Baghdad, which complicates their work, as they don’t have full control over the purse. The current councils are not always representative of their populations because of a Sunni and Sadrist boycott. That has caused ethnic divisions between Arabs and Kurds in Salahaddin, Diyala, and Ninewa. Since their election in 2005, many of the councils have also done a poor job governing, because they are largely untrained, incompetent, sectarian, and corrupt. Many Iraqis are disillusioned by their rule. The new candidates will have to maneuver through the institutional and political barriers to getting elected, and then prove that they can do a better job than their predecessors.

Battleground Provinces

Ninewa is one of the most troubled provinces in Iraq that has suffered as a result of the 2005 provincial elections. It is divided between the Sunni Arab majority and the Kurdish minority that resides in eastern Mosul, western Sinjar, and northern and eastern strips along the Kurdistan border. There are also many smaller minorities such as Turkomen, Yazidis, Christians, and Shabaks, who are caught in the crossfire between the Arabs and Kurds. This ethnic conflict has caused Ninewa to be one of the most violent in the country with a still active Al Qaeda in Iraq and other insurgents. In 2005 55.7% of the voting population participated in provincial elections, but only 14% in Ninewa. This was largely due to the Sunni boycott. As a result, the Kurdistan Nationalist Democratic List comprising the Kurdistan Democratic Party and several smaller parties took 31 of the 41 provincial seats. As a result, the Kurds gained control of the local government as well as the security forces that has been greatly resented by the Arabs to this day. Their dispute with the Arabs has led them to block the formation of Sons of Iraq (SOI) units because they see them as a threat to their power. They were eventually created, but only in three Arab majority areas. The Kurds also have aspirations to annex northern sections of the province. Several military campaigns have been carried out in Ninewa, which might have made the situation worse. In 2008 Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki also became involved when he launched his own offensive in Mosul, and then began concentrating on the Kurds. As reported before, he placed his brother-in-law in charge of the Army division in control of Mosul, and began rotating Kurdish officers and units out, to be replaced by Arab ones. He also tried to win the Arabs over by offering them reconstruction projects. Future peace in the province depends not only upon Sunnis gaining representation, but reconciliation between them, the Kurds, and the province’s minorities.

Diyala is another mixed province with many Shiite Arabs. It also has Kurds and Turkomen in the north. Like Ninewa, the Kurds want to annex northern portions of the province. Many of the tribes there are mixed Sunni-Shiite. In 2005 only about 33% of the province voted. As a result, the council was divided between the SIIC-Dawa coalition that received 20 seats, the Iraqi Islamic Party that got 14, and the Kurds’ seven. The SIIC gained the governorship and control of the security forces, the Islamic Party got the deputy governor, and the Kurds the head of the council. Many Sunnis resented the Islamic Party’s participation since they violated the boycott. These divisions contributed to violence, a dysfunctional council, little reconstruction, and up to 27,000 families fleeing their homes. Eight of the 41 council members were assassinated, leading to many others living in other parts of the country for protection. In 2007 the first Sons of Iraq (SOI) unit was formed, which helped quell violence in some areas, but not all, and they also clashed with the provincial police who were mostly Shiite and Kurds. In 2008 Maliki launched a security operation in Diyala as well. At first the security forces went after the insurgents, but later trained their sights on the SOI, members of the provincial council, and then the Kurds in the disputed Khanaqin district. Like in Ninewa, Maliki made the situation worse in Diyala by increasing tensions.

Anbar was once the heart of the Sunni insurgency. In 2005 only around 3,800 out of approximately 574,000 voters participated. The Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP) ran almost unopposed winning 34 of the province’s 41 council seats. The IIP acted almost unilaterally afterwards, cutting deals to maintain power that were illegal. First, in August 2006 they replaced thirteen council members with people that were not elected. This was due to the fact that four council members were killed, seven never took office out of fear, one became an aide to the governor, and one was elected to parliament. Then at the end of 2006, they added eight additional seats to the council in an attempt to appease and co-opt the Anbar Awakening, who was seen as a threat to the IIP’s rule. That didn’t work, and the Awakening began pushing for elections as soon as possible hoping to sweep the IIP out.

Baghdad was the center of the violence in Iraq and only 48% voted in 2005. The SIIC won 28 of 51 seats, and gained control of the governorship and the head of the council. Dawa won 11 seats, the Fadhila party six, and a group of pro-Sadrist independents three. The Sunnis were virtually absent from power due to their boycott, and gave no legitimacy to the council. After the sectarian war and the massive displacement that ensued, the council now almost represents the demographics of the capital.

The last province the Crisis Group discussed was Basra. In 2005 the Supreme Council-Dawa coalition won 20 seats, the Fadhila Party twelve, the secular Iraqi National List of former Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi five, the Islamic Dawa – Iraq Organization three, and the Future Iraq Gathering of the former oil minister Ibrahim Bahr al-Ulum two. After the election, Fadhila formed a coalition with those last three groups to take the governor position. The Fadhila Party controls the province’s administration, the SIIC the security forces, and the Sadrists once ran the streets and port. The rivalry between these groups led to open warfare between their competing militias. That wasn’t quelled until Maliki’s offensive there in March 2008.

The Major Political Parties

The parties participating in the 2009 elections are divided between the current ruling ones made up of the SIIC, the Kurdish Alliance, the Iraqi Islamic Party, and the Dawa Party, and the opposition consisting of the Sadrists, the Fadhila Party, the Iraqi National List, the Iraqi Communist Party, and the Awakening/SOI forces. The parties now in power have the advantage of controlling the facts on the ground, offering patronage, friendly mosques, and links with the tribes.

The Supreme Councils is one of the largest parties in Iraq. It was formed in Iran in the 1980s. In 2005 they largely ran under the banner of Grand Ayatollah Sistani. Since then they have raised the ire of almost every party in the country that hopes to unseat them. The SIIC controls most of the local governments in the south, along with Baghdad, which they will use to win votes. In many provinces they run the security forces, and also have a large number of friendly clerics and mosques. In 2009 they are running the Martyr of the Mihrab and Independent Forces List, which includes the Shahid al-Mihrab Gathering, the Badr Organization, Vice President Adel Abd al-Mahdi’s Independent Gathering, the Hezbollah Movement, and the Sayyed al-Shuhada Movement. They want to maintain control, and establish a Shiite nine province autonomous region in the south.

The Kurdish Alliance is made up of Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party, Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, and several smaller parties. They have proven to be the most disciplined and organized of all of Iraq’s coalitions. They are unified by Kurdish nationalism, and the call for a federal system that will allow them greater autonomy. They also wish to annex several northern areas that they claim are historically Kurdish. They have worked through the constitution and government to accomplish these goals. Kurdish politicians interviewed by the Crisis Group expected defeat in 2009, but wanted to lose as few seats as possible.

The Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP) was helped by the country’s turn to religion after the U.S. invasion, and the sectarian-ethnic quota system created by the Americans. They were also an established party, having been one of the first Sunni Islamist groups in the country. In 2005 they ran largely unopposed and gained seats in several provinces. They later formed the Iraqi Accordance Front with two other Sunni parties. They have had a difficult relationship with the other ruling parties, and boycotted the cabinet for several months. They have basically been included to provide the image of national unity, while given no real power or responsibility other than the ministries they control. The other ruling parties have also been upset that they have not been able to stop the insurgency. When the Awakening and Sons of Iraq forces emerged, they were put on the defensive by their own community that questioned their running in 2005 provincial elections. In December 2008 the Accordance Front also broke up when the National Dialogue Council left. They could lose seats as a result, but still have urban support, and are counting on the tribal forces splitting apart and dividing the Sunni vote to the IIP’s advantage.

The Dawa Party was the smallest and weakest of the major parties after the election, but may come out the biggest winner in 2009. Dawa was the first Shiite Islamic party founded in Iraq back in the 1950s. It gained control of the premiership due to the rivalry between the SIIC and Sadrists who blocked each other’s grab for power. They ended up selecting first Ibrahim al-Jaafari and then Nouri al-Maliki as compromise candidates for Prime Minister so their rival couldn’t have the post. Maliki replaced Jaafari, and was at first seen as weak and ineffectual, but has since then proven to be an adept politician able to negotiate a path between the United States, Iran, and the other ruling parties. Since his moves against the Mahdi Army, insurgents, and Kurds, he has fashioned himself into a nationalist leader. He has also argued for a strong central government, and opposed the SIIC’s and Kurds’ regional aspirations. As Prime Minister he has put Dawa members in key positions throughout the government, and centralized control of the security forces in his office. For the 2009 elections Maliki put together the State of Law list made up of his Dawa Party, Islamic Dawa – Iraq Organization, Oil Minister Hussain al-Shahristani’s Independents List, the Solidarity List, al-Intifadha al-Shaabaniya Pact, the Fayli Kurds’ Brotherhood Movement, and the Turkomen Islamic Union. As noted before, they may come away with more than half of the fourteen provinces that held elections this month.

There are also several opposition parties that are hoping to gain in the provincial elections. They are made up of the Sadrists, the Anbar Awakening and Sons of Iraq, the National Reform Party, the Fadhila Party, the Iraqi National List, and the Iraqi Communist Party. They all favor Iraqi nationalism, reject federalism, and oppose the SIIC. They were largely responsible for having elections this year over the protests of the ruling parties. Two major problems with all of them are that they are not running as a unified list, and are largely driven by their individual leaders’ personalities.

The Sadrists have been on the defensive since 2007. They were blamed for much of the violence as the sectarian war died down, were targeted by the U.S. and Maliki, went through Sadr’s cease-fire, then disbanded their militia, and now are trying to form a new social group. They still control many mosques, which are crucial to turn out and motivate voters. Sadrist politicians interviewed by the Crisis Group said they didn’t expect to win power in any province, but rather were wanted to stop the major parties from having a monopoly over them. Due to threats by Maliki to ban any party from running that had a militia, the Sadrists are instead backing two independent groups, the Integrity and Construction List and the Liberals Independent Trend.

The Awakening and SOIs are some of the newest groups on Iraq’s political scene. They forged an alliance with the U.S. aimed at kicking out Al Qaeda in Iraq, and gaining power. They oppose both the Shiite led government, and the Iraqi Accordance Front. The Awakening is based in Anbar, while SOIs have formed political parties in Baghdad and Diyala. They have not created a unified list however, and have increasingly been splintering along tribal lines. The Anbar Awakening for example, split in late 2008 with Abu Risha, the brother of the slain founder of the Awakening, and at least one other sheikh forming an alliance with the ruling Islamic Party. Maliki has also attempted to weaken the SOI in Baghdad and Diyala by arresting and harassing them.

Former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari was once one of the leaders of the Dawa Part, but became increasingly dissatisfied after he was replaced by Maliki. He eventually left to form his own National Reform Party that includes his wing of the Dawa. He has also looked to form links with the Sadrists, and appears to have had lots of money to spend electioneering.

The Fadhila Party is based out of Basra, and was created by Muhammad al-Yaqoubi. He claimed the mantle of Ayatollah Muhammaed Sadeq al-Sadr’s movement, the father of Moqtada al-Sadr, after the invasion. They support an autonomous Basra region, which was defeated just before the January 31 provincial elections. They have not governed Basra well, and have been accused of corruption and oil smuggling. They will probably lose control there, but are hoping to gain seats in the rest of the south.

Last there is former Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s secular Iraqi National List. They received massive support from the Americans in the 2005 election but did extremely poorly. They have formed an alliance with the Iraqi Communist Party and the Sunni Iraqi Front for National Dialogue.

Forces Shaping the 2009 Election

Besides the political parties, the 2009 elections will also be shaped by several structural issues within Iraqi society. Those include the performance of the current ruling councils, public perceptions, institutions, political manipulation, mosques, and the tribes.

Performance and perceptions might prove to be the most important factors in the 2009 election. In 2005 violence, boycotts, sectarian divisions, and a mix of confusion and excitement were major factors in the voting. As a result, many Iraqis stuck with parties from their own sect. Exile groups that had moved back to the country after the U.S. invasion had an advantage over others because they were established parties. The Shiite ones had clerics and mosques, and claimed Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani supported them. This gained them votes, but perhaps not legitimacy. They had to earn that, but have largely failed due to their bad governance. Many provinces suffered during the sectarian war, but even in the south that didn’t have as much violence the provincial politicians were not able to provide law and order, fight corruption, overcome inexperience, provide development, or spend their budgets. The councils have mostly blamed the lack of security and Baghdad for their problems, but many Iraqis blame them personally. The Crisis Group predicted this might depress the vote, which might be one major reason why only 51% of Iraqis decided to come out to the polls this time.

The ruling parties also tried to exploit their control of local governments to win votes. Government jobs are a massive source of employment in the country and are given out as a form of patronage. They may have also used their positions and control of the security forces to intimidate voters. Maliki for one actively used the government to promote his State of Law List.

Because of the plethora of new political groupings, the established ones have also resorted to political manipulation by forming their own independent parties to fool and divide voters. Many of these new independents are simply branches of the major political parties. In Anbar for example, the Islamic Party is running on its own, but also has the National Future Gathering and the Independent National Tribal Gathering. The SIIC created the Independent Gathering, which is supposed to be a less religious branch of the movement.

Mosques and clerics will also play a role in the vote. The leading Shiite ayatollahs have said they do not support any party this time around. Grand Ayatollah Sistani has implied that he is deeply upset with the current provincial governments, but that didn’t stop the SIIC from using his image and name repeatedly in their campaign events. The SIIC and Sadrists also control many local mosques and preachers that called for their followers to vote.

Iraq’s tribes also re-emerged in 2006 due to the Anbar Awakening at first, but then as tools of Maliki’s Dawa Party. In 2008 Maliki began creating Tribal Support Councils across Iraq. They were first started in his drive against the Sadrists with many southern tribes joined because they felt that the Mahdi Army was taking away their followers. Since then they have been created as a vote getter for Maliki. Each is controlled by a member of the Dawa Party, and gets $25,000 a month from Maliki’s office. Each member is allowed to hire several people, which creates a strong patronage system for both the tribal sheikhs and Maliki. The sheikhs were expected to turn out their tribesman on January 31 for the State of Law List. This was bitterly opposed by both the SIIC and Kurds who rightly saw them as challenges to their rule. Several tribes have also formed their own parties seeking a piece of the political and reconstruction pie.

Possible Results

The Crisis Group paper focused exclusively on the battleground provinces they identified at the beginning. For some reason they did not include Salahaddin, which is also divided between Arabs and Kurds. In Ninewa the newly formed al-Hadbaa party, which is the largest Arab coalition was expected to win. They oppose both the Kurds and the Islamic Party. The Kurds tried to postpone the election there to stave off their inevitable defeat, but were unsuccessful. A Kurdish official said they expected to lose control of Ninewa, and get between nine to 12 seats compared to their current 31. In Diyala the ruling Shiite and Kurdish parties also tried to delay the vote in anticipation of a strong Sunni turnout. The Kurdish head of the provincial council predicted that the Kurds would only have four seats compared to their current seven, and thought the Sunnis would walk away with twenty of the twenty-nine seats. Just who that would be was unknown as Maliki has created Tribal Support Councils in Diyala, and there are also various SOI groups competing with the Islamic Party. The fracturing of the Anbar Awakening will probably lead to joint rule between them and the Islamic Party. That could work if the two sides can negotiate a power sharing agreement. Baghdad was seen as up in the air since there were so many parties, Maliki’s State of Law, the SIIC, the Sadrists, the SOI, Allawi’s Iraqi National List to name just a few, competing there. Basra was a battle between Fadhila, the SIIC, the Sadrists, and Dawa.


The Crisis Group concluded by saying the greatest barriers to an effective vote in January 2009 that could bring about change was voter apathy, corrupt and incompetent councils, and political manipulation. Many parties ran on nationalism and the provision of services. The problem is more and more Iraqis are growing cynical about the political process due to the actions of the ruling parties that have failed to improve their daily lives. The Crisis Group thought that even if there were a successful January vote that would not mean that the underlying problems in the country would be solved. They could bring about new politicians that are more nationalist and support central control, but the ultimate test of the elections will be if the new politicians can gain popularity and legitimacy by doing a good job governing.


Fadel, Leila, “Low turnout in Iraq’s election reflects a disillusioned nation,” McClatchy Newspapers, 2/2/09

International Crisis Group, “Iraq’s Provincial Elections: The Stakes,” 1/27/09

Parker, Sam, “Guest Post: Behind the Curtain in Diyala,” Abu Muqawama Blog, 8/20/08

Rubin, Alissa, “Ahead of Election, Iraq’s Leader Pushes for Gains,” New York Times, 1/26/09

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