Al Maliki’s Defeat in 2010 Parliamentary Elections Will Be a Setback for President Obama in Iraq
By Webster Brooks
Washington, D.C. — The Iraqi legislature’s November 8 approval of a new election law and agreement to hold parliamentary elections before January 31, 2010 are bringing all the major problems in Baghdad to a head. Although President Obama praised Iraq’s parliament saying its action will keep U.S. troop withdrawals on track for completion by August 2011, the outcome of the election is fraught with danger for his administration. Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s re-election bid is in deep trouble. Renewed sectarian violence hangs over Iraq as two deadly al Queda bombings on October 25 of government ministry buildings in Baghdad has unsettled the country. Pro-Iranian Shiia forces have re-organized their election campaigns and are gaining momentum. Tension between Kurdish, Sunni Arab and Turkmen forces over the status of oil-rich Kirkuk are also intensifying as the Parliament’s new election law backed Kurdish demands that voter eligibility in Kirkuk (Tamim Province) will be based on the 2009 voting list. With the stakes and the political temperature rising, U.S. armed forces in Iraq are prepared to redeploy to Kirkuk as Iraq braces for outbreaks of violence in the run up to the election.
At the center of the electoral firestorm is Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki. In August al-Maliki announced his Dawa Party’s break with the major Shiia groups (Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and Sadrist forces led by Muqtada al Sadr) to form a secular “State of the Law List” with his “Sunni allies.” After directing the Iraqi Army’s offensive to smash the Sadrists in Basrah in 2008, al-Maliki distanced himself from the ruling Shiia coalition in Iraq’s January 2009 provincial elections. Al-Maliki’s list won a plurality of 31% of the vote carrying most of the Shiia majority provinces by campaigning on a platform of nationalism, political secularism, restoring law and order, building a strong central government and supporting a Status of Forces Agreement to expel U.S. troops by 2011. After his strong 2009 campaign al-Maliki negotiated with Shiia groups for months, demanding 50% of the parliamentary seats for the DAWA Party to join the new Shiia-led “United Iraqi Alliance List.” Fearful that al-Maliki is attempting to consolidate power for himself and DAWA, the Shiia groups balked at his demand but left the door open for al-Maliki’s possible return. On November 4, Iranian Parliamentary leader Ali Larijani arrived in Baghdad for talks with Iraq’s Shiia parties, urging them to settle their differences and bring al-Maliki into the fold to maximize Shiia control over Iraq’s government in the upcoming elections. But rapprochement between al-Maliki and the new United Iraqi Alliance is not likely. Over the past year al-Maliki’s missteps have alienated key forces and developments have conspired to further undermine his power base.
In August, former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari led a press conference announcing the creation of a new Shiia majority electoral list; the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA). After losing the 2009 provincial elections, the Sadrists, the Fadhila Party and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) patched up their differences and formed the UIA. Shiia forces hold 128 of the 275 seats in parliament, but in the 2009 provincial elections the ISCI won only 12% of the vote, the Sadrist 9% and former Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaffari won 5%. Forced to adjust its platform, the dominant ISCI dropped its call to create a Shiia controlled autonomous region (Shiiastan) in southern Iraq to appease Muqtada al Sadr’s forces in Baghdad and central Iraq who opposed Shiia regional autonomy. To appeal to more mainstream voters and secularists, the Sadrist and ISCI jettisoned their rhetoric to establish Iraq as a theocratic (read Shiia) Islamic state, choosing instead to run as a secular list. To broaden their base, the UIA invited Sunni groups, independents and influential Shiia secularist politicians like Ahmed al Chalabi and former DAWA Prime Minister al-Jaafari to join their list. When powerful Shiia cleric Ayatollah Sistani endorsed an open ballot process allowing Iraqis to vote for individuals, parties or lists, instead of just coalitions, UIA backers supported the measure in parliament although it will narrow their advantage at the ballot box.
While the UIA is expanding its base, al-Maliki’s “State of Law List” efforts to widen its influence beyond its DAWA base have met with little success. Prominent Sunni and secularist leaders publicly courted by al-Maliki are refusing to support his bloc. Former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, Sunni leader Saleh Mutlak and Vice-President Tarik al Hashemi formed the anti-Iranian “Iraqi National Movement List,” advocating re-integration of former Baathist leaders. Sheikh Ahmad Abu Risha, a force in Anbar and Interior Minister Jawad Bolani of the Constitution Party decided to create their own “Unity Alliance.” Similarly, al-Maliki’s efforts to recruit Ninewa Province’s ruling al-Hadbaa Party and Sunni tribal leaders from Anbar, Tamim and Salahaddin met with failure.
The Sunni lack of support for al-Maliki is not surprising. Al-Maliki promised to pay salaries for former Sunni Awakening forces and integrate them into Iraq’s national army, but half of the Awakening soldiers were never paid. Recently, al-Maliki announced the armed forces payroll would be cut as government salaries and expenditures were absorbing 74% of the nation’s $58 billion budget, thus the Iraqi National Army will likely remain a predominantly Shiia military. Moreover, reconciliation efforts to reintegrate Baathist forces into the wellsprings of Iraq’s government still has not occurred and no agreement has been reached on distribution of oil revenues. Despite his break with the Sadrists and the Iraqi Supreme Islamic Council, the Sunni still view al-Maliki as an agent of Iranian ambition. Sunni dissatisfaction with al-Maliki was underscored by the twin al Queda bombings in October of government complexes in the middle of Baghdad. The blasts that killed hundreds seriously undermined al-Maliki’s claim that he has restored security to Iraq. As the attacks were directed against major government buildings it appears the bombings were a direct warning to al-Maliki that the Sunni can visit chaos on Iraq if their demands are not addressed.
With the passage of the new 2010 election law allowing the 2009 voter list to be used in Kirkuk’s elections the Kurds are poised to gain control of oil-rich Tamim Province and exercise virtual independence from Iraq. Sunni Arab and Turkmen groups argued for using the 2004 voting list to eliminate voter eligibility for thousands of Kurds that returned to Kirkuk after Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003. How the new election law would be applied to Kirkuk was the most contentious issue delaying the passage of the new bill and it remains the most volatile flashpoint that could lead to mass sectarian violence between the Kurds, the Sunni and Turkmen. The Kurds are now positioned to increase its 53 seat voting bloc in Iraq’s Parliament and strike a deal with the Shiia UAI List to incorporate oil rich Kirkuk into Kurdistan’s autonomous region. The two major Kurdish groups (PUK and KDP) will not enter into an alliance with Nouri al-Maliki, who opposed Kurdish enlargement and dispatched Iraqi Army forces to attack the Kurdish peshmerga in 2008. Instead, the Kurds will support UIA control of parliament and have a major voice in naming a new Prime Minister to replace al-Maliki if the “State of Law List falters.”
While Prime Minister al-Maliki’s chances of being re-elected are growing dimmer, shifting alliances and unforeseen events could tip the scales back in his direction the next sixty days. Iraq is a very unpredictable place. Prime Minister al-Maliki’s emphasis on secularism, law and order and building a unitary Iraq rather than ceding more autonomy to the Kurds and Shiia has been viewed with great favor by the Obama administration. And while his outreach to the Sunni may fall short of winning allies for the election, it has altered the political dynamic in Iraq. For the moment, the revamped Shiia led United Iraq Alliance has the momentum to win a working Parliamentary majority and name a new Prime Minister. Among al-Maliki’s potential successors are Adel Abdul Mehdi, the Vice-President and a senior leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, and Ibrahim al-Jaafari, Iraq’s first elected prime minister. A pro-Iran leaning UIA victory will mean Tehran will strengthen its position in Iraq as the United States prepares to accelerate troop withdrawals at the end of March. The referendum on the Status of Forces Agreement scheduled for approval during the 2010 parliamentary has been withdrawn and will proceed on schedule for all U.S. forces to be withdrawn by August 31, 2011. If American forces can avoid being drawn into the maelstrom of Iraqi politics and sectarian violence President Obama may have the good fortune to exit U.S. troops without significant losses and augment his forces in Afghanistan. While an orderly U.S. withdrawal from Iraq will be viewed by many in the United States as a victory, in the larger strategic sense Iran’s ability to gain the upper hand in Iraq and solidify its control over the Persian Gulf would mark a major strategic setback for the U.S. Iraq’s 2010 elections and the fate of Prime Minister al-Maliki will significantly impact the future of American power in Gulf region as democratic elections continue to cast a large footprint across the Middle East.