The Najaf provincial assembly
Through selecting Ibrahim Salman al-Mayali as new governor on 30 April, the provincial council of Muthanna became the third of the nine Shiite-majority governorates south of Baghdad to emerge with a stronger than expected position for the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) after their setback in the January local elections.
Even if the Muthanna council was always going to be a difficult one for Maliki given the high degree of fragmentation (9 parties are represented in the 26-man chamber, with no single list counting more than 5 representatives), the outcome may be an indicator of some of the internal Shiite resistance to the direction of his policies at the national level. Just a little more than a month ago, Maliki’s coalition believed it commanded the loyalties of around 14 members of the council, just enough to form a coalition. But then things changed, and a 13-13 stalemate ensued in early April. And now, yesterday, Mayali, originally an independent member of Maliki’s coalition list, defected so that the pro-ISCI members of the council could elect him with 14 votes as the 12 remaining Maliki loyalists absented themselves from the proceedings. The council also voted for pro-ISCI figures as head of the provincial council and as deputies to the governor.
On the other hand, in Najaf, things went Malikis way, as Adnan al-Zurfi, member of a secularist-leaning local list who served as governor of Najaf under Ayad Allawi back in 2004, was voted in as governor today, against the votes of ISCI. The outcome is remarkable because Najaf is one of the few places in Iraq where there seemed to be genuine enthusiasm among segments of the population for the pro-federal ISCI-led regime that lasted from 2005 to 2009, in this case under Asaad Abu Gulal. Abu Gulal was ISCI’s candidate this time too, reportedly after an internal split had caused friction as some members of the Badr Organization had wanted the former deputy governor, Abd al-Husayn Abtan, to stand instead.
Iraqi commentators are divided as to the reasons for the long delays in forming councils south of Baghdad, which only was completed today with these two latest appointments. Some claim that there existed some kind of central agreement on creating a repeat at the provincial level of the all-Shiite United Iraqi Alliance from the 2005 national elections (and hence, a rapprochement between Daawa and ISCI), and that any divergences from this model can be attributed to squabbling of a very local character. (As late as two days ago, for instance, there were reports that agreement had been reached to split the Muthanna posts according to a complex formula in which one coalition would obtain the governor position as well as the deputy of the speaker of the council, and the other would get the speakership as well as the two deputies of the governor.) This interpretation, however, seems to discount the fact that Maliki very clearly did make attempts at some kind of dialogue with anti-ISCI Sunnis and secularists (such as Salih al-Mutlak) back in March, which would have meant an alliance on the pattern of the 22 July parties (the inter-sectarian coalition that last year demanded special arrangements for Kirkuk to reduce Kurdish influence there) and the logical opposite of a return to the UIA. And in Najaf, too, there seems to be a case of Maliki preferring to distance himself of ISCI instead of rebuilding an alliance focused on sectarian unity. The selection of Zurfi may prove controversial among some Sadrists (many of whom were in conflict with him back in 2004 and may not have been impressed by the reconciliatory moves he made towards the end of his tenure), and therefore appears to be another example of Maliki trying to build bridges with secularist circles rather than stressing sectarian unity at any cost.
In sum, Maliki apparently pursued a policy of confrontation with ISCI in seven out of nine governorates. This ultimately succeeded in six places (Basra, Dhi Qar, Qadisiyya, Babel, Najaf and Karbala) and failed in Muthanna. In Maysan and Wasit, a different policy of cooperation with ISCI prevailed.