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Iraq’s New Provincial Councils: A Mixed Picture North of Baghdad, Unexpected Complications in the Centre and the South

By Reidar Visser (www.historiae.org)
13 April 2009

With the election this weekend of the first batch of new governors in Iraq, the new political map of the country is also beginning to emerge. The Iraqis have already stretched the legal framework quite considerably – the “15 days deadline” from the publication of the final results on 26 March has apparently been interpreted as “working days”, and the emphasis has been on holding meetings rather than necessarily electing all key officials – but around half or Iraq’s provinces now have new governors.

It can be useful to discuss the emerging landscape on the basis of two different ways of looking at Iraqi politics. One is to emphasise ethno-sectarian divisions betweens Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis (which in turn are seen as internally unified monolithic blocs), and to interpret the Iraqi parliament as a tripartite construction where an alliance of Kurds and Shiites dominate. For a long time this sort of paradigm prevailed in US policy-making circles, where it gave rise to such concepts as the “80 per cent solution” (i.e. “dominate Iraq through friendly Kurds and Shiites”) and an “alliance of moderate sectarians” (which in practice meant the two Kurdish parties, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq or ISCI for the Shiites, and the Tawafuq bloc as a token Sunni representative). The alternative view is to ignore the sectarian identity of Iraqi politicians and instead consider their position on key issues in Iraqi politics. From this perspective, the Iraqi parliament has a highly different appearance, with the main cleavage between those ethno-federalists who favour almost all features of the 2005 constitution (KDP, PUK, ISCI, and, more reluctantly the Islamic Iraqi Party or IIP) and those who criticise several aspects of it including federalism, ethno-sectarian quotas and how to deal with Kirkuk (the 22 July parties, including the Sadrists, Fadila, Iraqiyya, the Mutlak bloc and various defectors from the Tawafuq coalition). In the middle, leaning towards 22 July on most constitutional issues but still in government with the ethno-federal parties, are the Daawa factions and the group of independents that formed the State of Law coalition under Nuri al-Maliki’s leadership in the January 2009 local elections.

At the national level, it has become increasingly clear that the ethno-sectarian approach is fast losing its relevance. How, then, is this playing out in local politics after the formation of at least some new provincial councils? North of Baghdad the picture is a mixed one. “New”, issue-based coalition formation was certainly evident in Anbar, where Tawafuq was sidelined by Sunni contenders who are friendly to the Shiite prime minister (independents, secularists and tribal figures from the Awakening), leading to the election of the independent Qasim Muhammad as governor on 12 April. Arguably, much the same could be said for Mosul. Even if the election of Athil al-Nujayfi from the locally-based Hadba bloc as governor could be seen as a case of one ethno-sectarian alliance (Shiite–Kurdish, made possible due to Sunni non-participation in 2005) giving way to another and possibly more hardened one (Sunnis mobilising on anti-Kurdish sentiment), it is significant that Hadba members have been vocal in calling for a role for the Iraqi army in Mosul, thereby envisioning a truly national role for an army which critics sometimes portray as a mere instrument of Shiite sectarian dominance.

On the other hand, in Diyala, the new line-up of senior officials still reflects “old politics” and the mood of 2005. Here, an alliance of the Kurds, ISCI and Tawafuq succeeded in installing Nasir al-Muntasir bi-Allah as governor, whereas the other Sunni-dominated parties alongside the Shiite-dominated Maliki list chose to boycott the proceedings. (The dynamic is actually quite similar to the ongoing contest over who should be the next speaker of the Iraqi parliament.) In Salahaddin, too, Tawafuq, managed to get its own candidate, Mutashar al-Aliwi, elected with a 15 to 10 vote. Significantly, here, as well, an oppositional bid against Tawafuq was based much in the spirit of the 22 July front, with other Sunnis, secularists, and Shiite supporters of Maliki attempting to create an anti-Tawafuq front, only to fail.

With the strong performance of the Maliki list in Baghdad, it is unsurprising that the two most sought-after posts in the Iraqi capital – those of governor and speaker of the provincial assembly – both went to people from his list, Salah Abd al-Razzaq and Kamil al-Zaydi respectively. Basra, too should be completely under the prime minister’s control, with an outright majority for his list on the council, and a loyal candidate recently nominated (reportedly Shaltagh Abbud) – although so far the formal convening of the new council has been postponed until later this week.

The most interesting aspect of these proceedings, however, is the slow progress in a string of Shiite-majority governorates south of Baghdad. So far, only Karbala has had its new governor confirmed; this happened as early as last week when Amal al-Din al-Hurr from Maliki’s list was elected governor, with a figure from the local list Amal al-Rafidayn (Maliki’s chief coalition partner in Karbala) as speaker of the local assembly. Karbala has particularly close ties to the Daawa movement and a figure close to the Daawa also served as governor after the previous elections even though ISCI enjoyed a majority in the local council.

In the remaining governorates south of Baghdad, no new governors have formally been elected. This is remarkable, because this part of the country was supposed to be a cakewalk for Maliki, after he so roundly defeated his main internal Shiite challenger, ISCI, in the elections back in January. What happened? To understand this, it is probably necessary to revisit the atmosphere when the first provisional results were announced in February. Back then, two alternative paths seemed open to Maliki. Either, he could take a magnanimous line towards fellow Shiite Islamist parties – perhaps even ISCI – and opt for power-sharing and/or independent governors in most places south of Baghdad, perhaps with the exception of Basra where his list won an outright majority. After all, being the incumbent in too many troublesome local councils could prove burdensome come election time at the national level (scheduled for December 2009), and he could stake his prestige on performing well in Baghdad and Basra. Alternatively, Maliki could try to make the most of his victory by building alliances that would secure Daawa dominance everywhere. Of these two options, Maliki appears to have chosen the latter.

Or at least, he tried to do so. February and March saw active coalition-building south of Baghdad that all seemed to be aimed at marginalising ISCI as much as possible. The first step was to move closer to the breakaway Daawa faction of Ibrahim al-Jaafari, with whom a deal appeared to be ready in March. Then followed negotiations with the main pro-Sadrist list of Amir al-Kinani, who declared his preparedness to take part in coalitions as long as ISCI were excluded. By early April, tentative anti-ISCI fronts grouped around these three parties as a core and capable of winning majorities had been formed in Dhi Qar, Qadisiyya (also including Fadila and possibly even followers of Mahmud al-Hasani, the Sadrist breakaway leader), Babel, Wasit (almost a perfect copy of the 22 July and national trends, with an initial alliance between Jaafari, the Sadrists and Iraqiyya that was later joined by Maliki) and even Najaf in addition to Karbala. The only exceptions were Muthanna (where Maliki also formed an anti-ISCI front but where the council is split 50/50 between the two parties and their allies), and Maysan, where ISCI is particularly strong in some rural areas, and where an all-Shiite grand coalition almost resembling the United Iraqi Alliance at the national level in 2005 appeared to be in the making. To underline the anti-ISCI direction and Maliki’s apparent revolt against “old politics”, an alliance with the secularist Salih al-Mutlak also seemed to be evolving in Sunni-dominated areas north of Baghdad; this reportedly also included (Shiite-majority) Babel.

On the surface, problems became evident from mid-March onwards. First, it took forever for the elections commission to actually release the final results, which prompted rumours to the effect that Iraqi politicians applied pressure to the commission to prevent them from releasing the results before the parties had decided how they would distribute key posts among themselves. Then, from early April onwards came a series of setbacks for Maliki in various governorates. His slight majority on the 26-member Muthanna council shrunk to 13 representatives, prompting a query to the supreme federal court about how to proceed in the situation of a hung local assembly. On 8 April, a meeting of the new provincial assembly was scheduled in Qadisiyya, but members of Iraqiyya and Maliki’s list preferred to stay at home. On 10 April, the Maliki-Jaafari coalition of 17 representatives in Dhi Qar met and elected their governor candidate, except that only 14 members were supportive enough to show up, less than a majority of the 31-member Dhi Qar council. On 11 April, Tanzim al-Iraq members reportedly defected from Maliki’s coalition in Wasit. On 12 April, the Maysan council met in closed session but postponed the election of leading officials; Sadrists complained that a promise from Maliki that they would get the governor position had not been honoured.

Some of these problems may have to do with the practicalities of reconciling local interests with the preferences of leaders at the national level. The Maliki list – which campaigned with promises of a strong state – has been unabashedly centralist in its interference with the process of selecting governors, in some cases imposing its own candidates (as in Qadisiyya), sometimes even against the will of local politicians (as has been reported in Maysan). Reportedly, a complex deal between Maliki and (pro-Sadrist) Kinani involving several governorates south of Baghdad and stipulating party shares of midlevel officials in various localities has also been entered into.

But clearly there are also deeper forces at work. The rapprochement with Salih al-Mutlak can be described as some of the bravest (and arguably most quintessentially Iraqi) that Maliki has done as premier. But so far, the new political map does not show much trace of that alliance, which reportedly had been underway in Salahaddin, Diyala, Baghdad and Babel. At the same time, the failure of Maliki to impose his will on the Shiite-majority areas of the south could mean that there is more competition than a mere glance at the elections results would suggest. With its anti-Baath message, ISCI (which remains powerful in many branches of government including the security apparatus and the integrity commission) has been at the forefront of the pushback against Maliki’s overtures to Mutlak, and there are forces inside both his own party and among the Sadrists that are tempted to go along with the kind of criticism offered by ISCI. Iran, for its part, makes no bones about its preference for politics in Iraq to be based on sectarian identity rather than a national Iraqi one, and is likely to have played a role in the recent revival of the idea of a reunited Shiite alliance of the kind that would pose a clear challenge to any deal between Maliki and Mutlak.

In sum, while the advances of a more national kind of politics in Iraq over the past year has been impressive, the forces that seek to enshrine ethno-sectarian divisions remain strong, and it is particularly remarkable that they have managed to continue to offer so much resistance after their massive defeat at the ballot box in January. This can already be observed in the new political map of Iraq north of Baghdad, and it will be particularly interesting to see how the struggle unfolds as governor elections take place in all the remaining white spots south of Baghdad over the coming weeks, not least in battleground mid-Euphrates governorates like Dhi Qar, Muthanna, Qadisiyya and Babel.

[A follow-up article on developments south of Baghdad is likely to be posted over the coming weeks. For free subscription, see the box at the bottom at the page or at the front page of www.historiae.org.]

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