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The Unity of Iraq Alliance: Another Second-Generation Coalition

By Reidar Visser (www.historiae.org)

21 October 2009

The significance of the Unity of Iraq Alliance announced today is that it forms yet another second-generation alliance in Iraq’s post-2003 politics, based on participation by politicians from various sects and ethnicities on an equal basis and connected through certain common (if in this case yet understated) ideological preferences. After the formation of Nuri al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition on 1 October, this is the second major cross-sectarian electoral coalition to emerge in the run-up to the January 2010 parliamentary elections.

Also like the State of Law coalition, the Unity of Iraq Alliance ended up in a somewhat less impressive shape than what had been foreshadowed initially. At one point, of course, all the parties that were disinclined to join the new Shiite-led alliance headed by ISCI and Sadrists were considered possible candidates for a single, nationalist coalition – in the most wide-ranging scenario also including secular and nationalist parties like Hiwar, Iraqiyya, the Independent Nationalist Trend of Mahmud al-Mashhadani and Nadim al-Jabiri and politicians in the Mosul area loyal to the Hadba trend. But whereas the relationship between many of these parties and Maliki quickly soured during the summer, two key leaders in the alliance announced today, Ahmad Abu Risha (a prominent tribal leader of Anbar) and Jawad al-Bulani (the minister of interior) at various points actually came quite close to joining Maliki. In late July, Maliki remained the preferred prospective coalition partner of Abu Risha (who had earlier spoken in glowing terms of how Maliki had “transcended sectarian quota arrangements in a way that will strengthen national unity”) and still on 31 August, Abd al-Hadi al-Hassani of the Daawa party envisaged an alliance with Abu Risha. Bulani, for his part, had originally emerged in 2006 as an “independent Shiite” minister of interior and an element of neutrality after ISCI (then SCIRI) had dominated and destroyed the credibility of the ministry during the Jaafari premiership. For a while Bulani seemed to be on Maliki’s side, but tensions have been evident since his Constitutional Party began showing serious political ambitions in the last local elections, and more pronouncedly so after the “Black Wednesday” explosions in Baghdad last August, especially concerning the dismissal of the senior official Abd al-Karim Khalaf. Nevertheless, attempts at reconciliation did take place only days before Maliki finally announced his alliance on 1 October and it became clear that Bulani and Abu Risha would after all not participate.

After the launch of the State of Law list, the key question was whether Maliki would be able to co-opt the rest of the nationalist parties or whether those parties would coalesce into a third major group of parties. What has happened is that the State of Law has not continued to develop to any significant extent (some of the participating elements have also faced a certain degree of opposition from their core constituencies more recently) while the results of other attempts at coalition-forming have been quite meagre. Throughout Ramadan, Iraqiyya remained focused on somewhat futile negotiations with their erstwhile enemies in ISCI, and while there now seems to be a return to more “normal” negotiations with other parties that share their secular and nationalist ideals, no major developments have been reported. Last week a collection of minor parties (and a sports star) declared their alliance with Iraqiyya, but none of this represented any significant changes in the political landscape. As for the Tawafuq alliance, its recent re-launch seemed to confirm its isolation as a Sunni-oriented bloc. Similarly, the decision by Usama al-Nujayfi that his Hadba-inspired list would contest only Sunni-dominated governorates seems out of touch with current, more national trends in Iraqi politics.

By contrast, the Unity of Iraq Alliance did manage to consolidate its alliance during October, even if it was unable to include everyone it had talked to. The core of the new alliance had in fact already been revealed on 18 September, when Abu Risha made his alliance with Bulani publicly known, and also brought in the Republican Party of Saad al-Janabi. When it became clear on 1 October that this core group would after all not join Maliki, they continued to search for new partners; on 11 October, Yasin al-Tamimi told the Al-Sabah al-Jadid newspaper that he envisaged a broad front that would also comprise the Hadba trend of Mosul, Ali Baban (a Kurdish, ex-Tawafuq minister in the Maliki government) and Yusuf al-Habubi (the surprise candidate who came from nowhere to win most votes in the local elections in Karbala). Today, however, none of these forces took part in the formal launch. Instead, other figures were confirmed and new ones added, including Abd al-Ghafur al-Samarraie (a well-known Sunni clerical leader and head of the Sunni religious endowments), Nehru Kasnazani (a Kurd with ties to the Kasnazani sufi order, a sub-order of the Qadiriyya), Saadun al-Dulaymi (a former defence minister), Abu Azzam al-Tamimi (another Anbar leader with past ties to the resistance), Diyaa al-Shakarji, who used to be with the old Shiite alliance, and Mazin Makiya, with a Daawa past. The general ideological tendency is towards Iraqi nationalism, centralism and dialogue with secular forces – in other words not terribly different from State of Law – although so far the public statements of the new coalition have left much to be desired with regard to specifics.

It is hard to evaluate the strength of the new alliance. Abu Risha was electorally successful in Anbar in the last local elections, although not overwhelmingly so. The Iraqi Constitutional Party has been impressive in spreading its party organisation over most of Iraq (it even participated in the local elections in Kurdistan) but has not scored any significant numerical success (three seats in the Wasit governorate council account for its best result so far). For his part, Abd al-Ghafur al-Samarraie acquired a certain respect in Shiite circles for distancing himself from al-Qaeda early on, and Kasnazani’s link to a sufi order that to some extent transcends the sectarian divide could also open up new avenues.

One possible indicator of the new alliance’s potential, at least as a challenger, could be the sheer amount of energy spent by Nuri al-Maliki and others to publicly dismiss and discredit it. Maliki reportedly has proposed a vote of no confidence in Bulani – some say this is based on concern that Bulani is using his influence in the ministry of interior to recruit voters and that his role as a head of the security services could be declared incompatible with a candidacy for the election. Additionally, news agencies loyal to the State of Law list have for many weeks been publishing various slander about Bulani, including a picture of him praying behind Harith al-Dari (who is seen by some Shiites as the embodiment of Sunni sectarianism). Rumours have been spread to the effect that the failure of Abu Risha to join Maliki resulted from pressure from Saudi Arabia.

On the balance, then, one gets the impression of an alliance that is genuinely cross-sectarian in spirit and origin. In practice, it is leaning a little bit in the Sunni direction and has lots of links to the security establishment, much in the way Maliki’s list in practice is leaning a little towards Shiite Islamists. Some of Maliki’s more sectarian supporters can be expected to try to paint an image of the Unity of Iraq Alliance as a pro-Baathist threat driven by “regional” forces (meaning Arab states). But if Maliki truly wishes to rise above sectarianism (and if he is to have enough like-minded supporters in parliament to be in a position to form an ideologically coherent government), he will have to combat that sort of tendencies in his own camp. Perhaps the best indicator of where the real centre in Iraqi politics lies will be seen in the stance – not yet definitively declared – of Karbala’s Yusuf al-Habubi. Habubi was an administrator of the former regime during the Baathist period but nevertheless experienced a watershed victory in Karbala last January because voters saw him as someone who could get things done. Back in August he formed an alliance with Ali Hatim al-Sulayman called the Flags of Iraq (in itself another second-generation coalition, but a tiny one), but after Sulayman joined Maliki on 1 October there has been no news about Habubi, who is thought at least by some to be a prospective candidate despite his current position in the Karbala governorate. Will he opt for the Unity of Iraq Alliance, or one of the other remaining alternatives – Hiwar, Iraqiyya, Hadba, the Independent National Trend, or a combination of these, or maybe State of Law? Habubi is important as a representative of millions of Shiites who worked with the old regime (a characteristic also shared by Bulani himself), and for the sake of lasting national reconciliation in Iraq it is high time that the Islamist parties which returned from exile after 2003 embark on a more realistic discourse towards this important segment of the Iraqi community – and indeed towards all Iraqis who found some kind of modus vivendi with the old regime without becoming attached to it ideologically.

One possible clue for future developments is the fact that today’s launch had been planned to coincide with the deadline for forming coalitions which originally expired today but was later extended to 25 October. The key point is that the extension was only made known this morning, and with the exception of Jabiri and Mashhadani, few others called for a last-minute extension (or made practical arrangements for a coalition launch). In other words, what we saw today could in fact be the maximum remaining coalition-forming potential. If that is true, it would mean that the other secular and nationalist parties are either hopelessly disorganised (in itself a cause of concern) or afflicted with hubris that make them believe they can win the elections on their own, which of course they cannot. For the time being, they have been given four more days to get their act together.

Postscript: On 22 October it was reported that the Jumhur al-Iraq list of Muthanna had joined the Unity of Iraq Alliance, presumably the same Jumhur party that has three seats in the local council there. That would mean a small but important step towards increasing the influence of the new coalition in the southernmost governorates. At the same time, there are rumours that Abd al-Karim al-Muhammadawi, the secular-leaning, anti-Iranian and anti-ISCI “Lord of the Marshes” and tribal leader from the Amara area, has joined Iraqiyya, suggesting that this is still an evolving process. Muhammadawi was at one point in 2005 tight with Bulani (and indeed with Ahmad Chalabi before Chalabi’s turn to ISCI).

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