Thursday, January 03, 2008

Dissing Peter to Praise Paul

While the US presidential election kicks off officially today in Iowa, many Iraqi political groups are involved in their own maneuvering with an eye toward the Iraqi electoral calendar. As Swopa recently noted, ISCI (formerly SCIRI) has been looking to regain political momentum in Shiite dominated Iraq by following a multi-pronged strategy which includes, among other measures, detaining/targeting Sadr loyalists (or taking advantage of US actions resulting in the same outcome) and, alternatively, focusing on delivering social services (a hallmark of the Sadrist movement, and the source of much loyalty). From the article cited by Swopa:

Seeking to change the image of the Supreme Council, the [party's charitable] foundation has spent millions on building mosques and elementary schools, caring for orphans and providing aid to 65,000 poor or displaced families. It has also funded trips to Iran for Shiite pilgrims and bankrolled one of Iraq's largest mass weddings, with more than 1,000 couples each receiving as much as $800 cash, a bed, new clothing and household goods.

. . . [But] the Supreme Council's links to both Iran and the Americans have eroded popular support. Voted into the government as part of the ruling Shiite alliance in 2005, the movement is also blamed for not improving basic services or boosting the economy. Even members of the Shiite business elite, core Hakim supporters, are grumbling.

. . . By reaching out to the urban underclasses, the Supreme Council is wooing Sadr's core constituency. For years, the Sadrists have brought social services to the Shiite masses.

As alluded to in the cited text, and further examined in a subsequent post by Swopa, the elected government headed by the Dawa party and ISCI has been hemhorraging popularity within the Shiite community due, in large part, to its record of incompetence, corruption and ineffectiveness. ISCI's close partnership with the Maliki government thus places it at a distinct disadvantage vis-a-vis the Sadrist current which has been quicker to distance itself from the ruling UIA coalition to which it, too, once belonged (and still supports, albeit tacitly and from a distance).

Today, the Associated Press reports on some more election-minded posturing by ISCI's leader, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who attempts to create the illusion of distance between ISCI and the government that it continues to play a large part in running:

[Al-Hakim spoke] of his displeasure with the performance of the 19-month-old al-Maliki government, of which al-Hakim's Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, or SIIC, is a major partner.

He subtly admonished the government for not doing enough to improve the lot of Iraq's poor or fight widespread corruption in government.

"The government must look for expertise and competence when it fills official posts," he said. "I am here repeating my earlier calls on the government to pay attention to the poor classes and ... low income employees." [...]

He also appeared to place the blame on the Shiite al-Maliki for not resolving differences with Sunni and Shiite political groups that had withdrawn from his government last year or filling up the Cabinet posts made vacant by their pullout.

That last part is especially rich: blaming Maliki for not doing more to reach out to disaffected Shiite political groups like, say, the Sadrist current - which ISCI has only been battling with increased ferocity throughout the Shiite south. That amounts to ISCI blaming Maliki for not doing enough to rein in...ISCI? Aside from the cynicism and mendacity, however, there is an obvious benefit to this electioneering. To quote Swopa:

It's somewhat ironic that after four years of facing off with one another's militias, Hakim and Sadr are learning that the real winner may be determined by who does the most to ease the suffering of Iraqi civilians. Ironic but welcome, I suppose.

Indeed. There is another potential benefit that, albeit remote, would mark the beginning stages of a healthier political environment in Iraq. ISCI, in its push to secure an even wider base of support ahead of the next round of elections, is casting about for allies in what may seem like unlikely places. Trudy Rubin mentioned it in a recent piece:

Meantime, new segments of society are trying to get into the political system, instead of aiming to seize power through force. New Sunni tribal militias in Anbar province, known as the Anbar Awakening, that drove out al-Qaida in Iraq, are now starting to form political parties that are less sectarian in nature than the existing Sunni parties. The group may draw substantial votes away from those existing parties because it has improved Iraqis' lives.

The Shiite ISCI is in discussions about allying with these nascent Anbar tribal parties. Sheik Hammoudi said he could envision an alliance between Shiite and new Sunni parties that would run as a cross-sectarian bloc in the next elections. This could be the first step toward modifying the U.S.-devised electoral system that promoted parties based on sect - and contributed to the Shiite-Sunni divide.

Also from the Associated Press piece cited above:

[Al-Hakim] acknowledged the contribution of U.S.-backed Sunni Arab groups to the decline in violence across Iraq and called for their use in the continuing fight against al-Qaida.

[Hakim's] praise for the role of the groups, many of which had fought U.S. and Iraq's Shiite-dominated security forces before switching sides last year, runs contrary to the hardline position recently taken by Prime Minster Nouri al-Maliki's government. [...]

"Today, we are witnessing the decline of terrorism and the progress of reconciliation on the popular level with Sunni-Shiite solidarity," he said, alluding to the government's perceived failure to achieve political reconciliation between Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish groups.

The formation of cross-sectarian (or better yet, non-sectarian) political groupings - or "vectors" - would represent a major step toward breaking the communatarian dynamic that has plagued Iraq and led to a self-perpetuating cycle of violence and retaliation. But then, I have been eagerly anticipating the emergence of such political movements for well over two years (guest post), with only disappointment to show for it. That being said, eventually, such vectors will appear. It's just that the process can take decades (see, ie, Lebanon). Rend al Rahim Frencke (warning: pdf) offers a rendition of the optimist's take:

Recent developments in Iraq provide a better opportunity than earlier to redefine Iraqi politics in terms of cross-sectarianism and national platforms. The breakdown of the Shia UIA and the incipient disagreements within Sunni Tawafuq open a path to new cross-sectarian, cross-ethnic alliances that can develop issues-based rather than sect-based agendas. The rise of the Sunni tribes in Anbar and elsewhere against al Qaeda provides an opportunity to reduce distrust and reshape Sunni-Shia dialogue. Countrywide tribal forums that bring together Shia and Sunni tribal leaders can provide alternative political structures that transcend sectarianism. Social and professional structures that draw on the urban middle class can provide the social underpinnings for development of cross-sectarian and cross-ethnic common interests. A further important step in directing Iraq away from sectarianism and encouraging national politics lies in changing the current electoral law of closed lists and adopting single-candidate, single-district elections.

I remain a pessimist but, as always, this is something to keep an eye on. Of particular significance will be how Sistani reacts to the early stages of outreach - and whether he will tolerate a dismantling of the UIA alliance in a favor of newer, less sect-based structures.

(cross-posted at American Footprints)

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