Move by Iran-Allied Groups Could Push Iraqi Premier to Partner With Sunnis
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
SAMARRA, Iraq, Aug. 24 -- Major Shiite parties with close links to Iran announced a new coalition Monday that excludes Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a development that appears to make him the underdog in the coming national elections.
If the new coalition remains intact and secures a majority of parliamentary seats in the Jan. 16 vote, Iraq's next government probably will be run by leaders with deep ties to Iran, which would considerably curb U.S. influence here as American troops continue to withdraw.
The new alliance and the likelihood that Maliki will be forced have to partner with Sunnis suggest that Iraqi politicians are increasingly willing to cross sectarian lines in the pursuit of power.
Maliki's exclusion from the alliance was not entirely surprising. Despite his considerable popularity, the prime minister has become a divisive figure, and a recent surge in violence has triggered criticism from Iraqis who view his administration as cocky and incompetent.
Because of the volatile nature of Iraqi politics and the fickleness of alliances, analysts cautioned that the political groupings are likely to change between now and the time the ballots are printed. Alliances could even be redrawn after the votes are tallied.
"All possibilities are open," said Shiite lawmaker Jaber Habib Jaber, who is part of the new coalition. "Negotiations are still ongoing with Maliki's camp."
The new Shiite coalition will be led by the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a conservative party that is among Iran's closest allies in Iraq. It also includes the movement of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr; the Fadhila Party; former Pentagon ally Ahmed Chalabi; and former prime minister Ibrahim al-Jafari.
Alliance leaders said they invited Maliki to join but refused to guarantee that he would keep his job if the alliance obtained a majority of seats.
Lawmaker Samira al-Musawi, who is close to Maliki, said members of the prime minister's new political wing, known as State of Law, were unlikely to join the new coalition. "We want to have a solid alliance that does not dissolve," she said in a telephone interview. Maliki is likely to ally himself with Sunni leader Ahmed Abu Risha, who gained prominence as one of the first Sunnis to join forces with the U.S. military in 2006 in western Iraq to fight the Sunni extremist group al-Qaeda in Iraq. In recent months, Maliki has also reached out to Sunni and Kurdish leaders in northern Iraq.
Deposed leader Saddam Hussein, who was Sunni, oppressed Iraq's Shiite majority.
The new Shiite coalition replaces the United Iraqi Alliance, which became the leading bloc in parliament after the country's first parliamentary elections, in December 2005.
The bloc chose Jafari as its nominee for prime minister, but he gave up the nomination weeks later amid pressure from Sunnis, Kurds and U.S. officials.
Maliki, a largely unknown politician at the time, rose to power in April 2006. The alliance later disintegrated amid disputes between its leading factions, Maliki's Dawa party and the Supreme Council.
Maliki became highly popular in 2008 as security improved and his government reached an agreement with the United States that established a strict withdrawal timeline. January's ballot may include a measure that could force U.S. troops to withdraw by January 2011, almost a year ahead of schedule.
Politicians close to Maliki did remarkably well during January's provincial elections, while the Supreme Council performed poorly in southern Iraqi provinces, its main base of support.
But Maliki's administration has come under criticism in recent months as violence has surged and his government has failed to considerably improve the country's infrastructure. The most recent blow was a coordinated attack on two key ministries that killed more than 100 people last week. Critics, including top government officials, accused Maliki of being reckless by loosening security measures in the capital.
Al-Iraqiya, a state-run television station, aired on Sunday a purported confession by a man who said he was the mastermind of the attacks. The man, identified as Wisam Ali Khazim, is a former member of Hussein's Baath Party, Iraqi authorities said.
Violence has increased notably since the June 30 withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraqi cities.
On Monday, at least 11 people were killed in attacks near Kut, a city in southern Iraq, officials said. Explosives were attached to the chassis of two minibuses traveling from Baghdad to Kut, according to a police official in Kut.
The new alliance was announced during a televised news conference Monday morning. Tellingly, the leaders of the Supreme Council and the Sadr movement were not present because they currently reside in Iran. Supreme Council leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who is ailing from lung cancer, is being treated in Iran. Sadr has been based there in recent years, studying under senior Iranian clerics.
Many Iraqis are wary of Iranian influence, a connection that could backfire on the new alliance. "This alliance without Maliki is very weak," said Ali Abdel-Ilah, 34, a government employee. "They have no credibility among people in general and Shiites in particular."
But others, such as Alaa Rehha, 31, said they would support the new alliance. "This is an Islamic country and we don't believe in liberalism and secularism," he said. "I hope they win again and assign only religious, qualified people to sensitive positions."
Iraqi army Maj. Gen. Rasheed Flahe Mohammed, commander of the Samarra Operations Center, said he was thrilled to see politicians willing to cross sectarian lines, as Maliki may end up doing. Mohammed said that although he is a Shiite, he would vote for a bloc that would put a Sunni in power if he determined that person was the most qualified leader.
"I'm optimistic about this -- Sunnis are allying with Shiites," he said as he watched the Shiite alliance's announcement on television. "This is something good for Iraq."