Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Good and Bad Arguments about the Shiite Alliance

Posted by Reidar Visser on Tuesday, 11 May 2010 18:11

The recent merger of the Iraqi National Alliance (INA) and State of Law (SLA) into a single parliamentary bloc has been met with considerable scepticism both inside and outside Iraq. Some of this criticism is well-founded and some of it rests on more shaky foundations.

Certain critics of the new alliance – and in particular the Iraqiyya coalition which came out first in the recent elections with the highest number of seats for a single list – focus on the legal and constitutional dimension, claiming that the right to form the government assigned to the “biggest parliamentary bloc” in the constitution necessarily relates to a bloc that had an existence by the time of the relevant parliamentary elections (in this case on 7 March 2010). The constitution is not specific on this, but it could be argued quite plausibly that parliamentary elections are more meaningful in terms of democracy if voters at least have an idea about what sort of coalition-forming alternatives exist for the post-election period. This interpretation has been challenged by Iraq’s federal supreme court which in a recent opinion put post-election and pre-election coalition forming on the same footing, but this in turn has been criticised by Iraqiyya for constituting a move beyond the true remit of the court. Also it could be argued that even though INA and SLA have announced their merger as a parliamentary entity, they have failed to produce a name and a bloc leader – both of which became normal characteristics of coalitions that qualified as “parliamentary blocs” in the previous assembly.

However, the problem with the legal approach to the issue does not rest so much in the theoretical domain. Rather, it has to do with Iraqiyya’s own approach to the eventuality of post-election coalition-forming in the autumn of 2009 and the first part of 2010. And in particular, it relates to Iraqiyya’s various (and ideologically contradictive) manoeuvres vis-à-vis INA in that period, which continued almost until the election date. The bottom line is that it is exceedingly difficult to understand these moves unless one accepts that there was an underlying intention of doing precisely what Iraqiyya is protesting today: To form a post-election bloc with the aim of trumping or blocking the list that came out with the highest numbers of votes. All too often, we tend to forget that the idea that Iraqiyya would emerge with a plurality in the elections was not entertained with any degree of seriousness even among the party faithful until after the elections, and that most of the pre-election coalition posturing was aimed at weakening Maliki and his SLA.

The examples of this approach by Iraqiyya are numerous. For example, just after the final line-up of Iraqiyya had emerged in late October (i.e. in the shape it was submitted to IHEC), Hussam al-Azzawi told media that Iraqiyya “intends to form a broad front with the other coalitions, and those who are closest to us in this respect are the Iraqi National Alliance and the Kurdistani Alliance”. Even more remarkable is the fact that something similar was repeated well into February 2010. At that point, Adnan al-Danbusi of Iraqiyya told Al-Hayat that his coalition was in touch with several forces including INA and the Kurds in order to “form a wide national front”.

ولفت الدنبوس الى ان «القائمة العراقية تجري حوارات مع عدد من القوى السياسية الفاعلة بينها «الائتلاف الوطني العراقي» والحزبين الكرديين، وخرجت بتفاهمات اولية إيجابية نحو إيجاد مثل هذه الجبهة العريضة لأننا نعتقد أن الجبهة هي الحل الوحيد للأزمات والمشكلات السياسية الحالية في البلاد»

What plausible motive could there be behind that front in February 2010, just weeks before the elections, other than a post-election plan to challenge Maliki who at the time looked likely to emerge with the biggest bloc?

But if the legal argument may look like a contradiction when the pre-electoral behaviour of Iraqiyya is taken into consideration, there is another, and more compelling, criticism of the new Shiite alliance: It takes Iraq back to the primitive political atmosphere of 2005. Thankfully, at a time when most Iraqi politicians are careful to wrap their statements in a mist of nationalist rhetoric about “unity” and “coexistence”, some still speak a kind of language that is easier to understand. Back in December 2009, Jalal al-Din al-Saghir of ISCI, a long-time advocate of a merger between INA and SLA, called for “the brothers in State of Law and the Iraqi National Alliance to put the interests of the people and the public above their own interests, and to merge… The unity of these two coalitions [is] the coalition of the majority.” It is in this kind of frank references to majorities and minorities in ethno-sectarian terms that the true character of the merger project is revealed: It has been conceived to perpetuate Shiite dominance of Iraq in ethno-sectarian terms, pretty much like the old United Iraqi Alliance that was formed in 2004.

هنا اكرر ندائي لإخواننا العزاء في الائتلاف الوطني العراق وائتلاف دولة القانون أن يغلبوا مصلحة الناس والأمة على مصالحهم الخاصة من خلال الاندماج فيما بينهم لأننا نعرف انه لا توجد فروقات حقيقية وإنما الفروقات هي مجرد اجتهادات ومجرد آراء لا يمكن أن ترقى إلى مهمة حفظ مصالح الأمة المرتبطة بوحدة هذين الائتلافين ، ائتلاف الأكثرية ولا شك أن مستقبل العراق يحتاج إلى هذه الأكثرية ليس من اجل أن يتغلبوا على الآخرين وإنما ليتموا مسؤوليتهم تجاه الآخرين ، وان الوصول إلى البرلمان بطريقة التنازع وبطريقة الصراع ما بين الائتلافين أو الوصول متفرقين سيؤدي بالنتيجة إلى ضعف هذه الأكثرية والسماح لمن يريد العبث بمقدرات العراق ومستقبل العراق باختراق هذا الصف والعمل على طبيعة التناقضات التي ستنشأ من جراء هذا التنافس

What, then, are the viable options for Iraqiyya today? How can they protest against the sectarian repolarisation of Iraqi politics without proceeding down the blind alley of a legal argument that they are unlikely to win? It seems pretty obvious what some in the new Shiite alliance want them to do. For example, Bahaa al-Aaraji, a Sadrist, says Iraqiyya should be invited into a coalition government, not as a list but as one of the “components” (mukawwinat) of the Iraqi people. In plain Arabic, he means Iraqiyya should represent the Sunnis in an ethno-sectarian power-sharing arrangement. Some may think that sounds sweet and tolerant, but they should remember that last autumn the same Aaraji was very happy to ram through changes to the electoral law with support from the Kurds and in disregard of what many Sunni representatives wanted. In other words, if Sunnis and secularists accept the ethno-sectarian power-sharing logic and opt to enshrine it in Iraqi politics, they also ensure that they will forever remain in a minority position in Iraq.

The alternative for Iraqiyya is to abandon the ethno-sectarian logic altogether and find back to its secular nature. Secular parties seek partners on the basis of ideology and not ethnicity. Instead of opting for an oversized government, they could make a last-ditch attempt to appeal to those in the Shiite alliances that are more interested in a shared vision of a strong, centralised Iraqi state. They talk about problems of Maliki getting “too strong”, but which is really the greater threat against Iraq’s survival right now: A strong premier (whose power can be balanced in a more effective government) or those who talk about an Iraq divided into regions based on sect and ethnicity? The oversized power-sharing government may create some temporary satisfaction among external players in Iraq, including Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States. But it is also the solution that gives something to all Iraqi politicians and nothing to Iraqi citizens. All they will get is a big government that can accomplish absolutely nothing.

PS Meanwhile, the Sadrists are inviting endorsements for Jaafar al-Sadr as the next Iraqi premier at the link below:

29 Responses to “Good and Bad Arguments about the Shiite Alliance”

  1. Jason said

    Like it or not, the decision of the court should be respected, and that should be the end of it. That is the very meaning of “rule of law.” And it is the intended function of the court to make its best judgment to fill in where the law is unclear. If you don’t like the ruling, clarify the law for the next elections.

    I continue to read about doubts as to the strength of the proposed INA/SLA merger to withstand the selection of a PM nominee. The Economist described it as “an engagement, but not yet a marriage.”

  2. Jason said

    And I say that, about respecting the court, with the caveat that this particular ruling is not an obvious affront to the democratic process, or arbitrary or an abuse of discretion.

  3. But Jason, why wait for the next elections? If you accept changing the rules on the fly then why can’t we do it before forming the new government?What’s the difference with a dictatorship?

  4. Gösta Grönroos said

    I must return to a previous query: what is the importance, in constitutional terms, of being appointed to form the government? Is it necessarily the incoming PM who does it? It seems that we are witnessing informal government negotiations anyway. Why couldn’t Allawi just bide his time? If INA & SLA cannot come up with PM now, why should we believe that they could once formal negotiations start? For one thing, I take it that whoever is tasked with forming the goverment doesn’t have any authority before the government has been sworn in.

  5. Reidar Visser said

    Gösta, on that question I think Faisal has put it clearly before: The PM nominee becomes the natural point of gravity for all coalition-forming activity. A unipolar versus a multipolar world, in a way.

  6. Kermanshahi said

    Well Reidar, I think it’s clear that Iraqiya does not appeal to many Shi’a or to any Kurds, they only have strong support among Sunnis, same way as it was proven Maliki had almost no support at all among Sunnis. This proves the two lists are not truely non-secterian and it changes the situation. Also with only 24% of the vote they do not have the backing of the majority of the Iraqis and thus don’t have the divine right to rule as they believe they have. That also reminds me, when Araaji talked about SLC-NIA bloc being backed by the majority, who sais he’s talking about the Shi’a majority (V the Sunni minority), he could have meant simply the alliance would be backed by the majority of the voters, which is where a democracy is all about.

    Now it’s not the politicians which took Iraq back to 2005, but the voters themselfes, they voted in a secterian way, just like last time. NIA+SLC have almost exactly as much percentage of votes as the old UIA had, KA+Gorran+IGK have around the same perentage as DPAK had (KIU staying nearly the same), only significant difference beign the Shi’a and Kurdish votes were split this time and Iraqiyya and Tawafuq together had around as much as they had last time, the significant difference being most Tawafuq voters moved to Iraqiya.

  7. Reidar Visser said

    Kermanshahi, as we have discussed earlier, you cannot reduce Iraqiyya to a Sunni party, and Maliki has tried a lot harder, at least, than INA, to appeal to Sunnis.

    As Mostafa showed the other day, together they have around 47% of the vote.

    Aaraji said Iraqiyya should be included as representative of one of the mukawwinat rather than as a party; that is as explicitly ethno-sectarian you can get it. If you meant Saghir, then there is no confusion about what he means. He talks openly about INA as a Shiite project.

    There were reasons for the re-polarisation of politics among the electorate, including de-Baathification (which in turn was driven from the top).

  8. Jason said

    Faisal, interpreting a ill-defined law or filling in a gap is not changing the rules, and it is not dictatorship as long as it is done by the judiciary following rules of due process. The court is the Referee, and the players have to submit to its ruling, or else the game comes to an impasse. If you want to change the wording of the Rule Book for next time, fine, but you can’t do it while the game is under way. That’s a Constitutional democracy working the way it is supposed to work.

  9. Reidar Visser said

    Jason, the way the federal supreme court abandoned its responsibilities during the de-Baathification debacle indicated the extent to which it has lost its independence. Having said that, my main point is that I think Iraqiyya will do damage to its own position by going on and on about a constitutional right that may exist in theory but that apparently no one outside their group is prepared to support. Their real hope lies in a return to a coalition-forming game based on issues instead of ethno-sectarian identities.

  10. Jason said

    Kermanshahi, the flipside of your interpretation can be argued with equal persuasiveness: that 75% of the population voted against INA’s brand of sectarianism and clerical rule, and that their wishes are now being overruled. Recall that before being boxed in by Chalabi and Lami on de-Baathification, Maliki was a hero for standing up to Sadr, and was talking about reconciliation with Sunnis, working to incorporate the Awakening members into the armed forces or find them jobs.

  11. Ali W said

    The biggest benefit of them uniting is because of the link i posted!!! Allawi is too close to those who helped commit yesterday’s crimes.

  12. mostafa said

    Hi Reidar,
    It is true thet INM & SLA have together 47% of the vote, but they can’t be that kind of majority because they can’t work together.
    I think they have contradictions about big issues like:
    1- “national reconciliation” which means to INM that they should reconciliate
    with the Baathists as a party and bring them back to the center of authority.
    2- The relationship with USA, Saudia Arabia, Syria & Iran. For instance, Maliki wants all US forces to withdraw at the end of 2011, but many leaders of Iraqiya have stated that they don’t agree on that.
    3- Parties & leaders of SLA & Iraqiya don’t share any history of working together before 2003 (as conpared the very strong bonds between Daawa factions and ISCI).
    4- Back to 2007: Iraqiya & Tawafuq withdrew from Maliki’s government because of his way of ruling (and when Tawafuq were back Iraqiya remained out). Moreover, Saleh almutlaq didn’t get in the cabinet at all.
    5- Finally, despite all the electoral slogans Maliki remains an Islamist as long as he is the leader of Islamic Daawa Party and most of his allies in SLA are also islamists. In contrast, Allawi and most of his allies are secularists.

    On the other hand, SLA shares all these issues with INA (they have an appreciable 41% of the vote & they can have a good deal with the Kurds).

    This is why Maliki & Allawi could not have any appointment to talk to each other (rather than forming a cabinet) for years.

  13. Reidar,
    Coalition forming is a must anyway, the question is under whose leadership? The biggest damage to democracy is to take away its capacity to bring in peaceful change of power, creating rules on the fly is designed to do just that. To my mind its not about Allawi and Maliki, their rift is mainly a clash of personalities of which Allawi has a lot to blame. Its about a process and its continuation, you wrote earlier and defended this concept. At this stage following procedure is very important, it makes the difference between stop and go. I think the supreme court’s block interpretation should be applied to the next elections, not to on-going election after voting.

  14. Jason said
    Interesting article contrasting Maliki’s legacy with Karzai.

  15. Reidar Visser said

    Faisal, I would have agreed with you were it not for the fact that the pre-election behaviour of Iraqiyya so clearly shows that they themselves were engaged in creating rules on the fly, precisely as you put it, by fraternising with INA and talking about a “wide front”.

    As for the “intentions of the framers” of the constitution, there are some interesting comments by Jason Gluck of USIP, who, like you, were critical of the opinion of the FSC at first: .

    Mostafa, I am not saying they can or should agree on everything. The key question is, could they agree on some basic issues and thereby create the basis for more effective government? Also, of course, the degree of ideological inconsistency only gets bigger when you add the Kurds and INA (to the mix which is considered the more likely scenario), so why not simply exclude those two and thereby at least keep the degree of ideological inconsistency to a minimum? Surely, if they are going to join with INA and KA the government will be more contradictive than SLA and INM on their own?

    Also, Iran has been a problem for some Daawa leaders ever since the 1980s and the quarrelling between ISCI and Daawa on the whole has been far more intense and bitter in historical perspective than that between INM and Daawa. I do not quite agree with what you say about “strong bonds” prior to 2003, since the Daawa basically defected from the pro-Iranian line of SCIRI and Iran had to create Tanzim al-Iraq in an attempt to win them back.

    Finally, there is nothing that prevents secularists and Islamists from agreeing on an oil law, centralisation of the state south of Kurdistan and Kirkuk. Good solutions on all those issues will in turn make it easier for them to make compromises in other areas.

  16. Reidar,
    Keeping procedure is not about rewarding Iraqiya or the winner whoever it may be, it is about continuing the process. On the other hand, I don’t get it: how does fraternizing and talking about a wide front constitute creating rules? The same result of coalition may be reached, one way is legitimate the other is not.

  17. Reidar Visser said

    Faisal, my question is that if we go back four months, who believed Iraqiyya would win a plurality? Or even INA? It was just in the final weeks that INA began looking stronger because of de-Baathification. That’s why I get the impression that these discussions seemed predicated on the assumption that there would be an attempt to challenge Maliki after the election, even if he would emerge with the biggest bloc. But my more basic point is that the current wrangling by Iraqiyya seems futile because it serves to alienate the most promising alliance partner for a strong and effective government (SLA) and instead will lead them, at best, to a very small role in a very big power-sharing government.

  18. Kermanshahi said

    Reidar, it’s true that Ayad Allawi represents some of the Shi’a, but with the 10% vote he got among Shi’a I conclude that the claims is he only backed by the rich, secular middle class is accurate.

    As for Maliki trying more to appeal to Sunnis than the INA, I’m not sayin it isn’t true, but I find the figures for Sunni governorates quite interesting:
    Anbar: SLC 6,156 | NIA 4,805
    Diyala: SLC 63,969 | NIA 85,821
    Kerkuk: SLC 11,862 | NIA 12,517
    Ninawa: SLC 15,755 | NIA 38,693
    Salahudin: SLC 31,026 | NIA 21,260
    Total: SLC 128,768 | NIA 163,096

    In the end the NIA turned out stronger in all Sunni governorates (and Kerkuk) except Salahudin (and Anbar, but that was more a battle between Sheikh Sheikh Ali Hatem al-Suleiman and Sheikh Hamid Hayes than between SLC and NIA), this could be due to the Shi’a vote, but than why would they gain such decisive majority of Shi’a votes everywhere in the North to even outnumber Maliki’s Sunni voters while Maliki beat them in almost all of the South?

    As for the secterianism of the National Iraqi Alliance, I saw this debate (before the elections) between Saleh al-Mutlaq and Qassem Daoud, the latter claimed that because of the addition of secular and Sunni parties to the NIA it had become a non-secterian, national, alliance. Mutlaq on the other hand claimed they were secterian becaue it’s still overwhelmingly Shi’a alliance. He was then asked that if the NIA is secterian, what makes his own party non-secterian? He is a Sunni, his party is overwhelmingly Sunni and he only get’s support among Sunnis. His answer was that because the UIA and NIA created a secterian atmosphere, he could only get support among Sunnis, personally I think this is quite a weak response and the NIA is secterian by the same standards as al-Mutlaq, and to some extent the entire al-Iraqiyya List is secterian. By your own figure we see that the only party within the INM which won any seats in Shi’a governorates at all was Allawi’s Iraqi National Accord, for the rest all the INM’s leaders (Mutlaq, Hashimi, Ergeç, Nujayfi, Karbuli, Yawher, Issawi, Jubouri) are Sunnis and their parties recied only Sunni votes and Sunni seats.

  19. Salah said

    With due, respect you overlooked to the public speeches and talks by these guys from different parties.

    Nevertheless, the facts behind the curtains there are fighting for the power, position and more befits for them and their folks. Whatever they say no one taking their words at its face value.

    This is drama that will last unless someone hummer these thugs.

    No one thinks and cares for the nation and for the Iraqis; it is all how they hold the power.

    The next government if they make it form Malki and others friends will be the last nail in their coffin, The last past four years past and we sow their work, I hope they will stay and make the next government and let wait more four years and see what they will deliver and give 20 million Iraqi in matter of public service and daily life and poverty jobs, health, electricity roads and oil..

    Let them stays this is will be the last stay for them.

  20. Liam anderson said

    Reidar, I know you have written about this, but it continues to fascinate me – Why is Iraqiyya not absolutely correct to challenge the authority of the FSC to interpret the constitution? The FSC is a hold over from the TAL, and has the power to interpret “the Law” (meaning the TAL), and relations between the transitional government and the governorates. The FSC has zero power to interpret the constitution, and should not even exist any more according to Article 62 of the TAL. Hence, comments such as “Like it or not, the decision of the court should be respected, and that should be the end of it. That is the very meaning of “rule of law” are ironic in the extreme

  21. Jason said

    Is this for real?! Allawi and INA reach agreement!

  22. Reidar Visser said

    Jason, AK News is often to be taken with a pinch of salt and some of their translations to English appear to have been done using Google Translate.

    Liam, I think that once more the problem is the past behaviour of Iraqiyya. Unless I am mistaken, it has several times (i.e. when it had a better relationship to the court) asked the court for opinions on constitutional matters, e.g. quite recently Tareq al-Hashemi I think asked about the possibility of designating the sitting government as a “caretaker government” in the transitional period. That makes it more difficult for them to gain accept for a wholesale marginalisation of the court only a few months later.

    Kermanshahi, I think the comparatively “good” result of INA north of Baghdad reflect small bastions of Shiite minority support which they have consistently cultivated, i.e. ISCI in Diyala and Sadrists in Kirkuk.

    The differences between INM and INA are clear when you look at the personal leves. No Sunnis on INA lists did well, whereas thousands of personal votes were given to INM Shiite candidates south of Baghdad.

  23. Jason said

    Ha, there are reports all over the map. Several others now talk of an INM/SLA meeting to forge a govt. I will have to trust you to sort it out for us.

  24. Reidar Visser said

    Jason, your first query was about a decisive Hakim-Allawi deal. This one is just about the reported Maliki-Allawi meeting that has been in the making for days and weeks and has been widely reported as such but which has failed to materialise so far.

  25. Kermanshahi said

    Reidar, I have myself also suspected that many NIA votes North of Baghdad came from Shi’a minorities in the region (specially in Diyala), however this would meant that despite Maliki being more populair than them among Shi’a in general, the NIA somehow has the backing of an overwhelming majority of Shi’a who live in Sunni majority governorates, so many Shi’a there support them that it’s more than the amounth of Shi’a in those governorates who support Maliki + the Sunni supporters he has (which are supposedly moer than the Sunni supporters of the NIA), this is possible, but it seems somewhat odd.

    Now I understand that Iraqiyya has been the most succesfull at appealing to both sects (with SLC and NIA failing to attract Sunni support, Unity failing to attract Shi’a support and Tawafuq not even trying), but than it’s one party which appealed to only about 10% of Shi’as. If the NIA had been able to attract just 1 major Sunni party which then won about 10 seats for them, would you call them non-secterian?

  26. Reidar Visser said

    Of course, voting patterns is just one aspect. Another has to do with ideology and outlook: INA was founded in Tehran; its programme says it will abide by directions from the (Shiite) marjaiyya. You cannot find something similar in terms of explicit sectarian links with respect to Iraqiyya (or SLA for that matter).

  27. aldaraji said

    Well said Mr.Visser…Ideology should be the common denominator if we want a strong, secular, Iraqi state.

  28. Reidar,
    Of course Iraqiyya wrangling is futile but the arguments against letting them have the first shot at forming the government are worse; if SLA/NIA coalition is so sure they got it wrapped up then why are they so uptight about letting Allawi try and fail?
    As for your earlier question: Four months ago who would believe Iraqiyya would win a plurality? It is obvious that the architects of de-Baathification did not understand the mechanism of sympathy vote.

  29. Jason said
    Sadr making preparations for power grab after Maliki.

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