Iraq’s Elections And The Shia Divide

NYT’s Baghdad Bureau has a breakdown of the preliminary results of Iraq’s provincial elections, as well as a look at the biggest winners and losers.

As Peter Juul and I wrote in our report last week, these elections were expected to function as something of a referendum on the question of federalism versus centralism. The thus far very impressive results for parties associated with Nouri al-Maliki have, at least in regard to Iraq’s Shia population, resoundingly answered in favor of the latter.

Analyst Reidar Visser also notes that the elections “to some extent mark a rejection of sectarian identity politics.” The Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and Fadhila — two Shia Islamist parties favoring more regional autonomy — both took significant losses:

The cleavage between ISCI and Da’wa during the elections campaign ran precisely along these lines: Maliki tried to emphasise Iraqi nationalism; ISCI tried to emphasise sectarian Shiism. Maliki won.[…]

Overall, this should serve as a wake-up call to the outside world, which tirelessly has sought to comply with the sectarian logic embraced by ISCI -– in terms of ethno-sectarian quotas, sectarian variants of federalism, and the retrograde concept of “disputed areas”. It is high time that Western politicians realize that the party they have been considering as the key to Iraq’s Shiite community (and sometimes have singled out as the likely provider of the next Iraqi premier) actually commands less than 10% support in the constituency it purports to represent. In other words, for much of the period since 2003, America’s policy in Iraq has probably not enjoyed the support of more than 25% of the country’s politicians (the two Kurdish parties and ISCI). Yet, still today, Iraqis continue to be the prisoners of the ethno-sectarian system of government that emerged in this period and was designed by the two Kurdish parties and ISCI.

While I think Visser slightly underplays the extent to which Maliki’s Da’wa Party was also treated as a “key to Iraq’s Shiite community” by U.S. policymakers, his main point here is an important one. Since 2003, the United States has facilitated and supported the political entrenchment of a party with little genuine support, one seen by Iraqi Shiites — correctly — as very close to Iran. It’s quite amusing to see the usual suspects celebrating ISCI’s ouster as a — yet another! — defeat for Iran, just as they celebrated the establishment of the previous Iraqi government dominated by ISCI as a — can you guess? — defeat for Iran.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post notes “the political resurgence of anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.”

Independent parties backed by his movement took second place in Baghdad and posted strong showings in Iraq’s south, underscoring the cleric’s street power. The Sadrists could emerge as kingmakers, as they did after the 2005 elections.

No one who’s spent much time studying Iraqi politics was ever under the illusion that the Sadrist movement was going to go away, but it’s important to understand the significance of ISCI’s losses relative to the Sadrists here. ISCI enjoyed numerous advantages going into this election. ISCI is extremely well-organized and funded, partly by Iran, and had been established in power through its close cooperation with the U.S. occupation. Both Dawa and ISCI had used their control of elements of the security forces to shape the electoral environment and weaken the Sadrist political infrastructure, though Maliki has in recent months reached out to them as he has become more alienated from his erstwhile coalition partners, ISCI and the Kurds.


Given that Muqtada himself remains in Iran — something that has certainly not bolstered his street cred — — it’s unclear what role he can or will play in the leadership of increasingly splintered movement. Much of Maliki’s success in recasting himself as an Iraqi nationalist has come as a result of co-opting much of the Sadrist’s nationalist platform, so it is almost certain that Maliki will continue his rapprochement with the Sadrists. There are also reports that ISCI has made overtures, which, given that ISCI and the Sadrist combined totals outweigh Maliki’s in a number of provinces, further underscores the Sadrists’ continuing relevance and resonance in Iraqi politics.