Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Archive for September 21st, 2009

Why an Allawi–Hakim Alliance Would Mean Retrogression in Iraq

Posted by Reidar Visser on Monday, 21 September 2009 13:52

[Updated 24 September 2009 with additional related news at the bottom of the article]

The rumours are so persistent that they are getting quite difficult to ignore: Ayad Allawi, leader of the Wifaq movement and the Iraqiyya coalition – the most sizeable, enduring and electorally successful secularist entities in post-2003 Iraq – keeps spending time talking to Ammar al-Hakim and other leaders of the newly (re)formed, Islamist and Shiite-dominated Iraqi National Alliance with a view to possibly joining their ticket for the upcoming 2010 parliamentary elections. Or rather his lieutenants in Baghdad keep these discussions going; Allawi himself has actually spent parts of Ramadan in the United States.

Some Iraq watchers are likely to construe any such alliance as a wonderful sign of progress in Iraqi politics. Is it not great that Allawi, a secularist, can get together with Shiite Islamists in a businesslike manner? Is this not proof that sectarianism is on the decline, since Allawi, whilst himself a Shiite, is popular among many secular Sunnis as well?

Alas, no. Political maturation requires a little bit more than people of different backgrounds getting together on the same coalition list. In particular, it would be nice, especially for voters, if the components of that kind of list had a minimum of ideological coherence and common issues on which they agreed. But unfortunately, such coherence is in short supply when it comes to the Iraqi National Alliance. Already, there is pronounced tension between the two main components, the Sadrists and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. The former subscribes to the vision of a strong, centralised Iraqi state; the latter has been the main protagonist of the decentralisation in Iraq and giving concessions to the Kurds. Where the two agree is with regard to the need to Islamise Iraqi society, as seen for example in Basra where Sadrists and ISCI figures have been trying to outbid each other in imposing Islamic dress codes and Islamic behaviour. Also, they are unified in their desire to keep Iraq free of Baathists and what is described as remnants of the old regime more generally. In fact, this is probably the single issue where there seems to be perfect agreement inside the alliance: Among the few specific points offered in its programme is a promise to voters to “cleanse the institutions of the state of Baathist and Saddamist elements”.

This anti-Baathism was the unifying theme in the previous Shiite alliance (the United Iraqi Alliance or UIA), and ISCI preacher Sadr al-Din al-Qabbanji – the figure who communicates with the popular base of the party – has promised that it will be central to the new alliance as the 2010 elections approach. And so it seems clear that to add Allawi to this mix would turn things into a complete parody. In fact, such is the antipathy towards Allawi (himself a former Baathist) in the core electorate of the Shiite coalition that the first UIA elections poster featured pictures of him as well as Hazim al-Shaalan with the text “the Baath is coming back – will you allow it?” In other words, it was believed that dislike of Allawi would be the best way to mobilise UIA voters. Remove the anti-Baathism issue and it becomes incredibly difficult to define what the Iraqi National Alliance really stands for.

Allawi has been on the same elections poster as the Hakims earlier...

Allawi has been on the same elections poster as the Hakims earlier...

That exposes the only remaining glue in the Shiite-led alliance: thirst for power, without the slightest regard to ideology. Over the past weeks, the alliance has signalled readiness to include anyone who is willing to sign up, including other past foes like Wail Abd al-Latif from Basra who antagonised ISCI with his drive to make Basra a standalone federal entity and his constant criticisms regarding their ties to Iran. As for Allawi himself, it is easy to contemplate his fate if he should sign up to the new alliance. The Iraqiyya movement would break apart – you just cannot fool all of the people all of the time. (In fact, this kind of outcome may well be exactly what the alliance leaders are hoping to achieve.) And even in the unlikely event that this trick succeeds among the Iraqi public, Allawi will likely end up as a disillusioned casualty of unbridgeable ideological divides, at best rewarded with a honorary ministry in the next Iraqi government. In short, the ascendancy of this kind of alliance would signify a return to the nonsense of 2003, a Paul Bremer logic with oversized, non-technocratic and corrupt governments in which each powerful player is accorded a ministerial vantage point from which to scavenge on the decaying Iraqi state.

Allawi's new allies? Image published by the Badr organisation from last week's Quds Day celebrations in Basra, featuring posters of Iran's Khomeini and Khamenei

Allawi's new allies? Badr pics from Quds Day in Basra, featuring posters of Khomeini and Khamenei

From the point of view of political maturation, there are in today’s Iraq two or three promising tendencies. The first is Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s “State of Law” coalition. In contrast to the Iraqi National Alliance, it has ideological coherence, focused on the vision of a strongly centralised state and reversing some of the excessive concessions accorded to centrifugal forces in the post-2003 period – and it has tried to adhere to this programme during its coalition negotiations. The second is the remnants of the 22 July trend, which was instrumental in pushing forward many of the legislative projects that enabled Maliki’s emergence as a distinctive centralist in 2008, such as the provincial powers law and the provincial elections law. Today it survives for example in the Independent Nationalist Trend headed by Mahmud al-Mashhadani and Nadim al-Jabiri. Thirdly, there is the collection of newly empowered forces that came to the fore after the last local elections, again often on the basis of Iraqi nationalism and criticism of Kurdish expansionism. This has been seen among Arab and Turkmen politicians in Kirkuk and through the Hadba list in Mosul. The recently-declared alliance between Yusuf al-Habubi of Karbala and Ali Hatim al-Sulayman of Anbar – the “Flags of Iraq” – appeals to cross-sectarian and tribal sentiments in its iteration of Iraqi nationalism and could also be seen as belonging to this group of new constellations that involve new faces or people who have been out of government for many years.

Ideologically speaking, both Allawi’s Iraqiyya list as well as the Hiwar movement of Salih al-Mutlak have a lot more in common with these forces than with the Iraqi National Alliance. For the sake of political maturation in Iraq and a concomitant move away from sectarian politics, it is to be hoped that these forces understand how they all need each other (and maybe Allawi’s flirtation with Hakim is just posturing intended to maximise his leverage in negotiations with Maliki). Unfortunately, there may be a tendency among Iraqi politicians to think that on their own they can repeat at the national level the “Habubi phenomenon” in Karbala (Habubi came from nowhere to win the greatest number of votes last January). What they forget is that those forces that were on the defensive in the last local elections have now devised their counter-strategy in the shape of the Iraqi National Alliance. It seems likely that another aspect of this counter-strategy is to make things as difficult as possible for Maliki in his ongoing negotiations with Iraqi nationalists – it is for example remarkable how media close to ISCI (which have been pushing the anti-Baathist and anti-Syria message for a long time) suddenly stand back a little while allowing Maliki to get trapped by going so strongly after Damascus.  Nevertheless, with his greater degree of ideological consistency Maliki should still be taken seriously by forces eager to consolidate the signs of improved political atmosphere in Iraq seen over the past year or so.

UPDATE 24 September 2009

Maliki’s declaration today that the State of Law coalition will run separately and not as part of any other alliance is the clearest indication yet that he will not join the Iraqi National Alliance. However, the key question remains, namely, what will be the exact composition of the Maliki alliance? On this issue we are still waiting for a formal announcement,  expected in the near future. Until it materialises, the flurry of contradictive statements and rumours concerning possible alliances (and now also super-alliances between coalitions) is likely to remain essentially a non-story.

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Posted in Iraqi constitutional issues, Iraqi nationalism, UIA dynamics | 23 Comments »