Thursday, June 4, 2009

USIP Report On Iraqi Politics and The 2010 Parliamentary Elections

In May 2009 two members of the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), Daniel Serwer and Sam Parker, traveled to Baghdad where they met with around 20 top Iraqi politicians and government officials. They wrote a report about their trip called “Maliki’s Iraq between Two Elections.” The major topic of discussion was the 2009 provincial elections, and its repercussions for the 2010 parliamentary vote. The Iraqi elites agreed that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had stolen the stage of Iraqi politics. All of the major national parties now operate in relation to him. At the same time, the USIP group worked with the newly elected provincial council in Diyala, who were more concerned about getting their government working than what was going in the capital. The report believes that this could be the beginning of a major change in Iraq with the emergence of issue-based parties rather than sectarian ones. That’s likely to be a long-term process as the major parties with the money, organization, and power are likely to dominate the parliamentary vote, and are still caught up on what to do with Maliki.

The first issue dealt with was the impact of the January 2009 provincial elections. Most of the Iraqis felt that the vote had gone off well, and were now reflecting upon the lessons learned. One was that parties with a strong organization and that could get out the vote did well. Coalition building was also of importance since so many parties participated it was the only way to gain power. Many also talked about “wasted votes,” those that went to parties and candidates that didn’t garner enough ballots to gain seats on the councils. That amounted to about 30% of the overall vote. That compared to Maliki’s State of Law List, which only got 19% of the national returns. 50% of the electorate also did not participate. The major parties were interested in trying to win over some of these populations.

All of the politicians were also focused upon the Prime Minister. Everyone seemed to base their positions upon Maliki. Some want to oppose him, some want to ally with him, and others want to see what will happen after the 2010 vote. No one thought Maliki would face a no confidence vote in parliament before the parliamentary elections. That could make him a martyr, and also deny his critics the chance to blame him for the country’s problems. There are also no clear replacements for him.

This is quite a change from when Maliki first came into office. His Dawa party returned to Iraq in 2003 from exile, weak, divided, lacking support, money and a militia. He was picked for his position because of his weakness compared to the two major Shiite parties the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Party (SIIC) and the Sadrists that dominated the United Iraqi Alliance. His initial inaction in the face of the increasing violence and chaos reinforced his image as an ineffectual leader. This all changed with the Surge. The Americans went after all of Maliki’s opponents from Al Qaeda in Iraq to the Sunni insurgency to the Shiite militias. That made the Iraqi state and the Prime Minister stronger. In 2008 he launched his own security crackdowns on the Sadrists in Basra, Sadr City, and Maysan. This created a new view of the Prime Minister and government as strong and decisive. Maliki was quick to claim all of the success, and make himself synonymous with the state.

In the process Maliki has stepped away from his former friends, and attempted to forge new ones to gain all the glory of the improved situation in the country. Maliki’s main coalition is made up of the Iraqi Islamic Party, the Supreme Council, and the two Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Originally Moqtada al-Sadr was also part of that group, but was pushed out with the help of the Americans. In 2008 Maliki moved away from this alliance to establish his independence. That was signaled in the January 2009 provincial elections when he formed his own State of Law List. Afterwards, Maliki has reached out to all groups in preparation for the 2010 vote. The Prime Minister for example, has held discussions with Saleh al-Mutlaq’s Hiwar Party, Ninewa’s al-Hadbaa List, Sheikh Abu Risha’s Anbar Awakening, and attempted to reach out to Baathists in an attempt to find new Sunni partners. Maliki also talked to the Sadrists, and recently flew to Iran to meet with the head of the Supreme Council Abdul Aziz al-Hakim who is in Tehran for cancer treatment. In doing so, he hopes to be the main player in any new ruling coalition that might emerge. He also has everyone guessing as to whom he will run with in the elections, himself, rejoin the United Iraqi Alliance, or some new gathering.

The Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP) has emerged as the strongest critic of the Prime Minister. Like the Dawa, they entered the new Iraqi political scene after the invasion with no real base, but were able to put together the main Sunni alliance the Iraqi Accordance Front, which has since disintegrated. During the Surge, they were able to take advantage of the new Sons of Iraq groups, and successfully co-opt many of them, thus gaining a grass roots organization. The IIP’s victory in Diyala in 2009 was an example of this. The party went on to win the most seats of any Sunni group in the provincial elections. To oppose Maliki they are trying to build up the power of the parliament. The election of Ayad al-Samarraie as speaker of the legislature on April 19, 2009 was the first step in their plan. He wants to make the parliament a check on Maliki’s authority. That was recently seen when the parliament forced the resignation of the Trade Minister, who was from the Dawa Party, over corruption. There are plans to question other members of Maliki’s cabinet about misdeeds as well. Parliament also blocked funding for the Tribal Support Councils, which was a patronage system put together by the Prime Minister in various provinces, and a reconciliation initiative that was aimed at co-opting Baathists. The Islamic Party is also pushing for constitutional reform to limit the Prime Minister’s office.

The Supreme Council has become another major opponent of Maliki, but seems to be turning inwards in the aftermath of their defeat in the provincial elections. In 2005 the SIIC walked away with eight governorships out of eighteen. In 2009 they won none. Since then they have been trying to deal with this loss. In the 2010 vote they want to portray themselves as being independent from Iran, and no longer advocating for a Shiite southern region. Despite their criticisms, they also want to try to convince Maliki to rejoin the United Iraqi Alliance, and run together in the election. Another major distraction is the fact that its leader, al-Hakim, is dying of cancer. When he passes, many think that the SIIC will split in two with old guard Badr Brigade militia leaders like Finance Minister Bayan Jabr running one faction, and newer officials like Vice President Adel Abd al-Mahdi the other.

The Kurds are also in conflict with Maliki. Beginning in 2008 the Prime Minister began moving the Iraqi Army into disputed territories of the north, which have largely been under Kurdish control since 2003. There have been several confrontations with the peshmerga as a result. The main Kurdish parties and the Americans are afraid that the dispute between Kurdistan and Baghdad will lead to violence. The United Nations is trying to mediate, but without strong U.S. support their work is likely to go nowhere. Surprisingly most of the Arab politicians in Baghdad were not that concerned about this issue. They believe that time is on the side of the central government, and as it gets stronger the Kurds will have to give way. Until then this division is likely to fester for the next couple years.

After those three major groups there are a series of smaller Shiite, Sunni, and secular parties that are also related to Maliki. What the paper called the Shiite center is made up of Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani’s Constitutional Party, government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh Competents Party, and ex-Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari’s National Reform Trend. The Sadrists are still a force in Shiite politics as well. The main secular leader is ex-Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and his Iraqi National List. Finally there are Sunnis like parliamentarian Saleh al-Mutlaq’s Hiwar Party, the al-Hadbaa List of Ninewa, former Islamic Party member Dhafir al-Ani, and Deputy Prime Minister Rafi al-Issawi. All of these parties ran in the 2009 election as nationalists, arguing for a strong central government. That was similar to Maliki’s State of Law platform, so they had mixed results. The Shiite centrists, Sadrists, and Allawi got some provincial seats, but didn’t do as well as they had hoped. The smaller Sunni parties actually did surprisingly well. Maliki also courted all of these groups as potential new allies.

Finally the USIP traveled to Diyala to help the new provincial council there forge a position paper on what their goals would be while in office. There the USIP found that the politicians were much more interested in getting the local government working, especially because the previous one was considered a failure, rather than national politics. The Diyala council members didn’t pay much attention to their party bosses in Baghdad, and were more issue based. The Americans saw this as an important development in Iraqi politics, as the Diyala council was likely to meet the needs of average Iraqis compared to the power struggles going on in the capital.

“Maliki’s Iraq between Two Elections” points out the dynamics of Iraq’s national and local politics. In Baghdad, the major parties are involved in a prolonged struggle for power as Maliki has successfully placed himself as the public face of the government. His former allies have been left out in the cold, and are either challenging him, like the Islamic Party and Kurds, or trying to re-organize like the SIIC. At the same time, this has opened up opportunities for newer and smaller parties by allying with one side or the other. It also appears that this struggle is more important than actually improving the country for many politicians. At the provincial level however, the USIP found different parties, sects, and ethnicities working together on the newly elected council, trying to address their constituents’ needs. The USIP paper believes that the 2010 election could be a turning point if Maliki decides to run on issues like he did in 2009. There is also the possibility that he will go back to sectarian politics and rejoin the United Iraqi Alliance. The USIP hopes for the former outcome, but if it doesn’t happen they believe there will probably be more opportunities in the future to change the political culture of Iraq. It seems likely that this will stay at the local level, and take quite some time to bubble up to the top. The major parties including Maliki are caught up in a serious struggle for the right to rule, which will have to play out before issues become the prime focus of the government, if ever. Until then finding new friends and shifting alliances will continue to dominate the capital.


Bakri, Nada, “In Iraq, Assertive Parliament Emerges Under New Speaker,” Washington Post, 5/27/09

Domergue, Jeremy, “Selection of Speaker Reveals Shifting Coalitions in Iraqi Parliamentary Politics,” Institute for the Study of War, 4/28/09

Press TV, “Iraq’s Maliki at Hakim’s bedside in Tehran,” 5/31/09

Serwer, Daniel and Parker, Sam, “Maliki’s Iraq between Two Elections,” United States Institute of Peace, May 2009

Visser, Reidar, “Maliki Suffers Setbacks as Samarrai is Confirmed as New Speaker and More Governors Are Elected South of Baghdad,”, 4/19/09

Wong, Edward, “Iraqis weigh alliance to marginalize Sadr and bolster Maliki,” International Harold Tribune, 12/11/06


Alex_no said...

Good to see you don't bother with trivia like a certain degree of scepticism about the motivations of USIP.

I thought all our discussions last year about the SOFA had well shown that you have to treat what USIP has to say delicately. It is scarcely an independent institution.

Joel Wing said...

My reading of Iraqi politics since 2008 would tend to agree with the USIP observations of national Iraqi politics.

Look at the results of the 2009 provincial elections and the maneuvers done afterwards. Maliki's State of Law came out on top, although without a majority. He then had talks with any and everyone to form ruling coalitions.

Also look at Maliki's moves since Basra in 2008. He has built up popular support, created patronage systems through Tribal Support Councils, strengthened his hold on the military, and moved away from the Kurds and SIIC. The ruling Kurdish parties are now all focused upon Maliki, the Supreme Council is trying to figure out whether they can work with him, and the Islamic Party are trying to balance him with a stronger parliament with the new speaker Summarie. These are all things I've consistently read about before the USIP report was issued.

In fact I just read this new paper, "Kurds in Iraq: the struggle between Baghdad and Erbil" in Middle East Policy March 09 that says much of the same thing about Maliki's centrality in Iraqi politics.

Do you have an alternative view?

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