Turning point

Print edition : March 26, 2010

Nouri al-Maliki (centre), Iraqi Prime Minister, with candidates of his group, the State of Law coalition, at a campaign rally in Basra on February 20.-ATEF HASSAN/REUTERS Nouri al-Maliki (centre), Iraqi Prime Minister, with candidates of his group, the State of Law coalition, at a campaign rally in Basra on February 20.

MANY world capitals, particularly Washington and Teheran, are eagerly awaiting the results of the March 7 parliamentary elections in Iraq. A victory for the parties advocating an immediate end to the American occupation of the country would constitute a serious political and military setback for the Barack Obama administration. A lot of political heat and sectarian tensions have been generated in the run-up to the elections. So much so that the air is thick with fear that sectarian violence could once again erupt on a grand scale across the country.

According to reports, the incumbent Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, is fighting to stave off a determined challenge from his rivals among the various Shia-supported parties. The political grouping led by the radical anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr is seen to be emerging as a major contender for power. Al-Sadr wants the U.S. occupation forces to quit the country at the earliest, a view shared by the majority of Iraqis. Washington, however, seems to be having long-term plans in Iraq. The U.S. is constructing its biggest embassy in Baghdad and has built big military bases in preparation for a long haul.

The recent terror attacks in Baghdad and other cities have dented al-Malikis reputation. He had been claiming that much of the country had become peaceful under his watch. The civic infrastructure in Baghdad and other major cities has not improved. Massive power cuts and water shortages are still the order of the day. Allegations of corruption at the top levels of the government have also queered the pitch for the State of Law bloc led by al-Maliki. Ayatollah Bashir al-Najafi, a member of the Marjaiya (the Shia spiritual authority with which leading Shia theologicians are associated), has accused the al-Maliki government of nepotism and corruption. He went to the extent of accusing the executive authority of betraying the nation and fostering sectarianism. Al-Malikis claim is in spite of all these.

The Iraqi National Alliance (Al-Malikis main rival in the elections), consisting of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) and the Sadrists, seems to have the implicit backing of the influential Shia clerical establishment. The pre-eminent Iraqi Shia cleric, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, has, however, made a belated appeal to the Marjaiya to remain neutral in the election campaign. In the last general elections, the Marjaiya had publicly supported the United Iraqi Alliance to which al-Maliki belonged. The Alliance has since broken up with al-Maliki and has opted for new political partners.

The third main contender is the Iraqi National Movement, a coalition of mainly secular Shia and Sunni parties, under the leadership of another former interim Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi. Allawi, a former Baathist, was a known Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) asset during his days in exile. The National Movement is trying to position itself as a joint Shia-Sunni secular alternative to the two Shia fronts, which have good relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Allawi is Washingtons choice, but opinion polls indicate that the coalition led by him will come third, securing around 20 per cent of the vote.

The Obama administration is concerned about the possibility of the National Alliance getting the largest number of seats in the 325-member Parliament. The SIIC is known to be close to Iran. A worst-case scenario for Washington is the Sadrists obtaining the largest number of seats in Parliament and securing the top job of Prime Minister. American officials are already alleging that Teheran is throwing its full weight behind the Sadrists. Salah al-Obeidi, the chief spokesman of the Sadrists, said recently that the National Alliance would win 70-80 seats, of which the Sadrists were hopeful of getting around 35.

Radical Shia Cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who is now positioning himself as a mainstream politician.-QASSEM ZEIN/AFP

The Sadrists have undertaken social and developmental work in their areas of influence in the big cities. The American military surge had forced the Sadrist militia to keep a low profile. Al-Sadr himself left for Iran in 2007; he is now positioning himself as a mainstream politician. His party made a respectable showing in the provincial elections last year. The Obama administration is trying its best to ensure that the Sadrists are kept out of the government. Washington hopes the Kurdish and Sunni minorities will get enough seats to keep the Sadrists out of the corridors of power.

The Sadrists and the SIIC, on their part, have even suggested that they will even support outside candidates for the Prime Ministers post in order to prevent al-Maliki from retaining the job. Among the names being mentioned in this context are those of Ahmad Chalabi and the former Prime Minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari. Chalabi, who seemed to be Americas chosen man at one time, is now viewed as being closer to Teheran. The Sunni minority does not favour either Chalabi or Jaafari. Chalabi, as the head of the government-appointed Justice and Accountability Commission, had purged thousands of Sunnis from government jobs for their alleged ties with the banned Baath party of Saddam Hussein.

Top Sunni politicians have been barred from contesting in the March 7 elections on the grounds that they were pro-Baathist. In all, 500 candidates were debarred as part of the de-Baathification campaign sponsored by the al-Maliki government. Saleh al-Mutlaq, a prominent Sunni parliamentarian and leader of the National Dialogue Party, who was among them, has called upon his followers to boycott the elections. During the two-year stewardship of the government under Jaafari, who preceded al-Maliki, the Sunni population bore the brunt of the sectarian violence, which claimed tens of thousands of lives and turned millions into refugees.

Seven years after the American occupation, many of the ground realities have changed in Iraq. Much of the Sunni resistance has been either cajoled or coerced into cooperating with the U.S. military under the leadership of General David Petraeus. Washington is now exerting pressure on the al-Maliki government to reintegrate former Baathist officials and military men back into the system.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, speaking on the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in February, accused the Obama administration of interfering in the election process of Iraq by trying to get the former Baathists into government. On the other hand, the leading Sunni party, the Iraqi Islamic Party, blamed Washington for turning the country into an open theatre for regional and international interference.

Christopher Hill, the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, has, meanwhile, accused Iran of trying to undercut the U.S. efforts at stabilising Iraq before the scheduled withdrawal of its troops later in the year. Iran, he said in a speech delivered at the United States Institute of Peace, was showing a malevolent face and was trying to frustrate U.S. and Iraqi common goals.

Another main contender for power is Iyad Allawi, who heads the National Movement.-SAAD SHALASH/REUTERS

There is no doubt that the U.S. is worried about the growing Iranian influence in Iraq. Almost all the Iraqi Shia parties are indebted in one way or the other to Iran. Most of their leaders, including Jaafari and al-Maliki, have spent long years in exile there. Only the former Baathists and a section of the Kurds in Iraq are hostile towards Iran. The umbrella resistance group, the Islamic State of Iraq, which is fighting the U.S. occupation forces, has issued a statement condemning the elections saying that they would only help the Shias beholden to Iran consolidate power. Al Qaeda in Iraq is part of the group. However, unlike in the 2005 elections, there are no signs of a mass Sunni boycott of the coming elections.

Christopher Hill had, in his speech, warned the Iraqi Shia leaders not to bank on Iranian support. He said that one of the great calling cards we have in Iraq is that we can introduce Iraq to the international community. At present Iran can introduce Iraq to North Korea, and not much more. The Iraqi National Alliance termed the statements of Hill and U.S. military officials as regrettable. The National Alliance said that the American-inspired move to rehabilitate the Baathists was a coup against the political process.

Given the popular outcry on the subject among the Shias, who constitute more than 60 per cent of the electorate, the Iraqi Prime Minister also had to weigh in. Al-Maliki warned foreigners not to interfere in the countrys elections. He also went on record as stating that he would not allow Hill to go beyond his diplomatic mission.

A victory for pro-Iranian parties will no doubt be a setback for the proposed Arab front that the Obama administration is trying to cobble up against Teheran. Obama was hoping to withdraw the bulk of American troops after ensuring that a pliant government is in place in Baghdad. He told U.S. soldiers in February 2009 that by August 31, 2010, the U.S. combat mission in Iraq will end.

Already there are calls from influential American think tanks and newspapers that the Obama administration should abandon its commitment to pull out troops and instead maintain a strong military presence in Iraq for the foreseeable future. The American media are full of predictions of another cycle of bloody sectarian war breaking out after the March 7 elections. On February 22, General Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, announced that the U.S. was making contingency plans to delay the withdrawal of all combat troops in case of political instability after the elections.

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