In an ominous backdrop to the recent political turbulence in Iraq and mass arrests yesterday of scores of employees of Finance Minister Rafi al-Eisawi of Iraqiyya, the Iraqi electoral commission IHEC has rather silently confirmed that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is beginning to shape a big sectarian alliance for the purpose of contesting the local elections in April 2013.
IHEC continuously updates its list of newly formed coalitions, but the latest addition yesterday of an entity referred to as C26 is surely the most momentous so far (and probably the last one, since 20 December was the extended deadline for registering coalitions). The name of the coalition is State of Law, and its head is “Nuri Kamil Muhammad Hasan”, aka Prime Minister Maliki. The really important thing, though, is the scope of the alliance. Not only are the usual suspects from the various Daawa parties, the “independents” of Vice Premier Hussein Shahristani and the Daawa breakaway faction of Ibrahim al-Jaafari included. Here are also Badr, Fadila, and several smaller Shiite Islamist and (Shiite) Fayli Kurd parties. The only slightly unexpected inclusions are Jamal al-Batikh of the White breakaway movement from the secular Iraqiyya and Iskandar Witwit, also formerly of Iraqiyya. Then again, these are (secular) Shiites, meaning that the overarching theme here is the failure of Maliki to coopt the many Sunni breakaway factions from Iraqiyya who share some of his ideas in the ongoing dispute between Baghdad and the Kurdish federal region. Instead Maliki is relying on a ragtag of smaller parties who stand out mostly for their Shiite sectarian outlook, including some truly unsavory elements like the Tanzim al-Dakhil branch of the Daawa party headed by Abd al-Karim al-Anayzi.
The only major Shiite parties that are not included in Maliki’s new list are ISCI and the Sadrists, the latter having announced a coalition of their own. [Update: “latter” in previous sentence refers to the Sadrists only, not to both. In latest IHEC, ISCI and Sadrists each have little coalitions of their own, named Muwatin and Ahrar respectively.] To some extent, it may be a healthy tendency that all these three groups should remain in competition in the governorates south of Baghdad. However through this act of coalition-forming, coming on top of the recent decision to create purely Shiite alliances in Shiite-minority governorates like Diyala and Salahaddin (some say also Nineveh but not confirmed by IHEC yet), it is clear that Maliki will not be using the local elections of April 2013 to build bridges to Sunnis and secularists. At one point it was rumoured he even tried to get ISCI included in his coalition.
The alternative of reaching out to some Sunnis and secularists wouldn’t have been altogether implausible. Already there were signs that the various Iraqiyya breakaway elements were fragmenting further into pieces that theoretically could have been partners of Maliki rather than opponents in places where there are mixed sectarian demographics or large secular electorates. One such alliance brings together the Nujayfi brothers, Dhafir al-Ani and Ahmad Abu Risha (rumours that the besieged Eisawi should himself have joined is so far only supported by a few secondary sources; as late as four days ago Eisawi was only discussing a possible alliance with Abu Risha according to his own website). Another more recent coalition includes Salih al-Mutlak and Qutayba al-Jibburi, from one of the many Iraqiyya breakaway factions that appeared earlier this year. But with the seemingly arbitrary arrests of people close to Rafi al-Eisawi yesterday, the effect seemed to be that Iraqiyya got some renewed unity as several of its leaders got together to support Eisawi.
If Maliki uses the run-up to the local elections to persevere with his current conflict against the Kurds and intimidate Iraqiyya without building any bridges to disaffected Sunni Arabs in the disputed territories (and possibly also without having the diplomatic buffer of President Jalal Talabani whose health problems have deteriorated sharply in recent days), he will probably lack the parliamentary and political basis for such an escalation. If his approach remains unrealistic, the chances for violence will also go up.
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