The twilight struggle for the leadership of Iraq

Iran, the U.S. and Iraqi groups dance around each other as election approaches

Published February 3, 2010 3:04PM (EST)

I am going to speculate a little today, but I am hoping it is informed speculation. I think an end-game drama is playing out in Iraq between the United States and Iran, and possibly among factions of Americans in Iraq, over the likely leader of the next Iraqi government. I am going to argue that the disqualification of 500 candidates, some of them prominent Sunni Arabs, is not a sectarian measure, but a strategic strike at a single candidate.

Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, a Sunni Arab and member of the three-man presidential council, visited Washington for consultations with President Barack Obama on Tuesday. In an interview with political scientist Marc Lynch, al-Hashimi was clearly upset about the decision of the High Electoral Commission to exclude over 500 candidates, many of them Sunni Arabs, from running in the March 7 parliamentary elections because of their alleged connections to the banned Baath Party (the secular Arab nationalist party that had been taken over by Saddam Hussein in 1979). But he was apparently not sure how much U.S. intervention he wanted in the crisis.

I think the visit was to strategize with the U.S. over how to counter the Shiite chess move, which was probably carried out in consultation with Iran, aimed at checkmating candidate for prime minister Ayad Allawi. Allawi is one of five or six plausible successors to current Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, assuming al-Maliki cannot muster the seats to allow him a second term. They also include Vice President Adil Abdul Mahdi of the Shiite Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, former prime minister Ibrahim Jaafari, who broke off from the Da'wa Party, perpetual gadfly and Neoconservative favorite, Ahmad Chalabi, and a couple of others. Of them all, only Allawi is anti-Iran. Of them all, only Chalabi might try to recognize Israel, though many suspect him of being a double agent for Iran.

Al-Maliki, head of the Islamic Mission Party (Da'wa), is running in the State of Laws coalition. But that coalition is mainly made up of the Islamic Mission Party, which just has not been a dominating party in the elections held so far. Unlike in the past two parliamentary elections, al-Maliki declined to join the big coalition of Shiite religious parties, now called the Iraqi National Alliance, which includes the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and the Sadr Movement. The Shiite vote could therefore end up being split.

Since the Iraqi constitution specifies that the single party or party-coalition that has the largest number of seats will be given the first shot at forming a government, al-Maliki could only get a second term if Da'wa does unprecedentedly well and outpolls almost all the other Shiite parties together. Worse for Shiite interests, you could imagine a situation where Da'wa gets 65 seats and the Iraqi National Alliance gets 70, but where some other coalition gets 73. It could be the Kurdistan Alliance, or the new cross-sectarian secular coalition of Ayad Allawi, to which Hashimi belongs. If Allawi's list got the 73 seats in this scenario, he would have the chance to try to form a government.

Allawi, an ex-Baathist of Shiite extraction, was a CIA asset in the 1990s in London, in charge of running the officers in the Iraqi military who defected from the Saddam Hussein regime, and of coordinating terrorist attacks in Baghdad and attempts to assassinate or overthrow Saddam Hussein. Allawi appears to be too much of an Arab nationalist to look with favor on reconciliation with Israel, and so he was disliked by the Neoconservatives in the US. But he was favored behind the scenes by the CIA, which managed to convince George W. Bush to appoint him interim prime minister in June, 2004, a post he held until he was defeated by the religious Shiite parties early the following year. While Allawi was in power, he appointed hard line Sunni Arab nationalists to key positions, including Defence and Interior, who constantly attacked Iran and called it Iraq's number one enemy. Iran was very upset about this emergence of a Washington-backed 'Baath lite' in Baghdad, and may have responded by helping fund the political campaigns of the Shiite religious parties in fall of 2004. The United Iraqi Alliance, Shiite religious parties who made a coalition with each other, unseated Allawi in the January 2005 parliamentary elections, and trounced him again in December 2005.

Allawi leads a small coalition that has 25 members in parliament. He has occasionally attempted to put together a coalition of parties in hopes of unseating al-Maliki, who is to pro-Iran and pro-Shiite religious groups for his taste. But Allawi's efforts in that direction never bore fruit and he appears not to have gotten the green light from Washington to make a serious push.

But Allawi suddenly became a plausible candidate for prime minister in January for four reasons.

First, the Shiite religious parties are not running unitedly, and so the Shiite vote could well be split.

Second, he did manage to put together Iraqi National Movement that groups both Sunnis and Shiites, most of them secular but including also some religiously-oriented figures.. It includes VP Tariq al-Hashimi as well as Abdul Karim al-Muhammadawi, the Shiite 'Prince of the Marshes' and Marsh Arab leader who led a group called Hizbullah in insurgency against the Saddam Hussein regime and is now a notable and leader in Amara. It also included the National Dialogue Bloc of Salih Mutlak, which has 11 seats in Parliament, and is made up of Sunni Arab nationalists.

Third, secular parties did relatively well in the January 2009 provincial elections. A Sunni Arab nationalist party, al-Hadba', took over the northern province of Ninevah. Secular or tribal Sunni Arab groupings did well in al-Anbar and Diyala provinces. And while Da'wa or the Islamic Mission Party is a Shiite fundamentalist grouping, it avoided religious rhetoric in the campaign and did well, especially in Baghdad and Basra.

Fourth, in mid-December Iranian forces took over the Fakka oil field, claimed by Iraq, and raised an Iranian flag over it. This move put the Iraqi Shiite parties, which are close to Iran and probably receive emoluments from Tehran, in a very difficult position. The Iraqi public wanted thunderous denunciations of Iran. None were forthcoming from al-Maliki or other Shiite leaders, though they successfully worked behind the scenes for an Iranian withdrawal. Allawi's coalition partner, Salih Mutlak, complained bitterly not only about the Iranian incursion but also about al-Maliki's silence. The Iraqi Shiite press in turn complained about the attempts to promote Irano-phobia in certain quarters. Iraqis are nationalistic, and an anti-Iran backlash could have awarded Allawi's coalition enough seats to let him form the government.

An Allawi victory would have been music to Washington's ears, because the Obama administration and the U.S. military could withdraw from an Iraq ruled by a secular Arab nationalist government profoundly suspicious of Iran.

The banning of the candidates, with Mutlak at their head, was initiated by the Accountability and Justice Committee, headed by Ali al-Lami, a militant Shiite. He was arrested in summer of 2008 by the U.S. military on returning from a trip to Beirut, on suspicion that he was a covert leader of the rogue cells called "Special Groups," within the Mahdi Army. These Special Groups were suspected of being run by the Jerusalem (Quds) Brigade or special forces of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. He has also been linked to the Asa'ib Ahl al-Haqq, a splinter of the Sadrist Movement involved in the kidnapping of Britishers. Al-Maliki recently released a leader of this radical group, Qais al-Khazali, who will likely campaign for al-Maliki.

Lami is himself running for parliament as part of the Shiite religious parties coalition. He is said to be close to Chalabi, who supports the exclusions.

So it looks to me as though Lami's move may have been intended to make sure that Allawi's Iraqi National Movement could not emerge as the largest single bloc in parliament on March 7. The constitution, mind you, doesn't specify that the party or coalition that forms the government be a plurality or majority. It just has to be the single largest group. By excluding Mutlaq, Lami blunted al-Maliki's momentum significantly, and may even have provoked some Sunnis to boycott the elections, which would weaken Allawi's bloc further. Unsurprisingly, al-Maliki was enthusiastic about the exclusions.

I surmise that Iran, including the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps that used to run Lami and Khazali, and some Iraqi Shiite religious parties are conspiring to ensure that whether al-Maliki survives or not (and he is perfectly acceptable to them), the next prime minister of Iraq comes from one of the Shiite religious parties and so remains aligned with Tehran. A possible but unlikely scenario is that fierce Da'wa/ ISCI rivalry allows Chalabi to emerge as a compromise candidate.

The March 7 elections will therefore help to determine whether the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq leaves behind a strong ally of Iran or a government with lukewarm or bad relations with Tehran.

Personally, I don't find it plausible that even without the disqualifications of Mutlak and some others, Allawi's Iraqi National Movement would have been the biggest in parliament or that he could become prime minister. He has too much baggage.

It is said that al-Maliki's own polling points to a Da'wa win. But that development would also surprise me. I think he could get a second term, but it would be by entering a post-election coalition with the Iraqi National Alliance (the Shiite religious parties). It is also possible that the INA will have the most seats, and that Adil Abdul Mahdi of ISCI could emerge as the strongest candidate.

Since al-Maliki is the first fairly strong leader in post-Baath Iraq, and since he seems genuinely to have gotten control of the Iraqi armed forces, any change in prime minister does raise the specter that his successor will not be as good at the game of military influence, leading to more instability.

Long story short, the March 7 elections and the politics around them are only in part sectarian. They are also about the relative position of Washington and Tehran in Baghdad as U.S. troops rapidly withdraw.

By Juan Cole

Juan Cole is collegiate professor of history at the University of Michigan. He runs a news and commentary webzine on U.S. foreign policy and progressive politics, Informed Comment. His new book, Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires (Nation Books), has just been published.


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Iran Iraq Iraq War Middle East