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February 7, 2005

Sadr Marginalized ... for Now


by Juan Cole

With 3.3 million votes counted from about 10 mostly southern provinces, the United Iraqi Alliance of mainly Shi'ite religious parties is so far garnering an astounding 66 percent of the seats in parliament (that percentage will fall as the northern, Sunni Arab, and Kurdish vote comes in, but it may not fall below 50 percent). The Iraqiyah list of interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi has only gotten 18 percent so far, and that percentage may well fall to 10 in the final tally. (Since its numbers are so much lower, and the election results are proportional, its percentage will be hurt much more by a high Kurdish turnout than will the percentage of the UIA.)

As the list cobbled together under Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani's auspices looks set to rule Iraq, al-Hayat reports that his representative in Karbala tried to issue reassurances. Shaikh Ahmad al-Safi said in his Friday sermon that the members of parliament elected last Sunday will enjoy complete legitimacy to speak for the Iraqi people. He called the Iraqi people to unity. He said that "this is the first time that Iraqis have witnessed this in more than 80 years." [This statement is actually not true, since when Iraq was a constitutional monarchy it did have elections for parliament, the last one being in 1954.] He said that everyone must work to prevent a partition of Iraq, both those who participated in the elections and those who did not. He denied that the Shi'ite members of parliament would attempt to erect a "a religious state." He said that Shi'ites had suffered more than anyone else from Saddam's authoritarianism, and they did not want to oppress their fellow Iraqis. Rather, they would work to save them from oppression.

The northern eight provinces are mostly Sunni Arab and Kurdish (along with minorities of Turkmen and Chaldean Christians, about 3 percent each of the national population). But the Sunni Arab regions had a very light turnout, so the Kurds may well get 20 percent or more of the seats in parliament, even though they are probably only 15 percent of the population.

If the Shi'ite coalition gets 50 percent or more, it will only need 16 percent of the seats (or less), to form a government, which requires a two-thirds vote. The easy place to get those seats is from the Kurdish coalition list. So a Shi'ite/Kurdish alliance would immediately dominate parliament. The Sunni Arabs and the Allawi list would not be needed. They might be asked to join a government of national unity, but they wouldn't be given much in the way of concessions, since their votes are simply not necessary. It would just be a matter of symbology, an attempt to mollify the Sunni Arabs. The Allawi list's emphasis on secularism and support of invasive U.S. military action against large groups of Iraqis probably makes it an outlier.

The resulting government could have Jalal Talabani as president, a Sunni Arab as a vice president, and Ibrahim Jaafari of the al-Dawa Party as the other vice president. Adil Abdul Mahdi of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (and current finance minister) is a leading contender for prime minister.

A Shi'ite/Kurdish alliance would be a difficult one, since the Shi'ites want religious law and a robust federal government, whereas the Kurds want civil law and a weak federal government. Moreover, the Kurds want Kirkuk and its petroleum revenues, but are opposed in this by the city's Arabs and Turkmen; both groups contain a significant Shi'ite population. But it is possible that being in the same government coalition would allow the Shi'ite and Kurdish leaders to reach key compromises on these issues that would be more difficult if the Kurds were not inside the government.

UIA member Muwaffaq al-Rubaie has suggested that the Kurdish demand for a redrawing of the Iraqi provinces so as to create an ethnic Kurdistan province might be best accommodated by having only five provinces in Iraq. There would be two Shi'ite provinces, two Sunni Arab provinces, and one Kurdish one. (By the way, if the Iraqis created an upper house of the legislature with five representatives from each province, this chamber could form a check on any tyranny of the Shi'ite majority in the lower house.)

Personally, I think Allawi and his people may well get frozen out of important posts and patronage. They may have to hunker down and prepare to try to do better in the elections scheduled for December.

There is another possible scenario for the formation of a government. It is that the United Iraqi Alliance makes a coalition with Allawi's list and some other small, Sunni Arab parties (especially those with a religious fundamentalist cast). This outcome seems less likely to me, but could become possible if the Shi'ites and Kurds can't reach some suitable immediate compromises.

By the way, I don't find the fears that the UIA or the religious Shi'ite list will fall apart once seated in parliament compelling. The UIA is a winner, and has a chance at vast power and patronage, including $17 billion in government revenue (and more if the sabotage of oil pipelines can be checked), and all those government ministries, which are part of spoils system. I'm not sure why any faction would want to walk away from all that loot. Wouldn't it be better to stay in the circle of winners and stake a claim on it? They might do it if it were possible for them to help form an alternative government. But the UIA is likely to be so powerful in parliament as to make that impossible. (If the UIA has any more than 45 percent of the seats, and remains united, then no other assortment of lists could possibly put together the needed 66 percent to form a government. Moreover, it is unlikely that you could could put together a viable government from a vast array of small parties outside the UIA.)

The young radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr belittled the elections on Friday and called for the setting of a timetable for U.S. withdrawal. Sadr's political stock, however, is at a nadir. The UIA only has about 20 Sadrists, mostly somewhat independent, on its list. Sadr sat out the elections. Unless poor street thugs reemerge as a force in Iraqi politics, Sadr has been as marginalized as Allawi for the moment. However, the poor Shi'ites of the slums who are attracted to him and his ideology have not gone away, and he should not be counted out as a factor in future elections and political movements. I suspect the advent of genuine prosperity in the slum of Sadr City would permanently blunt his influence, however.

If the economy does not get going soon, if the guerrilla war grinds on, if U.S. forces continue to act in a heavy-handed manner and remain numerous, then the tide could easily turn in Sadr's favor.


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    Juan Cole is Professor of History at the University of Michigan. Visit his blog.

     

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