Iraq’s dangerous elections

Zaid Al-Ali
23 December 2004

In mid-November 2004, a coalition of political forces committed to participating in the Iraqi elections scheduled for 30 January 2005 was announced, under the guidance of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Hussein al-Shahristani, a spokesman for the committee coordinating al-Sistani’s effort and a former prime ministerial candidate, consistently declared that the coalition would include all major Shi’a political movements.

These included members of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri), the Islamic Dawa party, and followers of the popular, maverick cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Tense last-minute negotiations were held over the importance that al-Sadr’s movement would be given in the coalition; even the earlier dominant position it had been offered - because of al-Sadr’s support amongst Iraq’s disenfranchised poor – seemed not enough to satisfy his movement’s ambition.

Negotiations ended on 7 December 2004. The coalition was entitled the United Iraqi Alliance (UAI) and the complete list of members was to be published the following day. According to al-Shahristani, it would include al-Sadr’s followers. Then, the bombshell: while Sciri and Dawa members dominated the published list, al-Sadr’s followers were nowhere to be seen.

The official explanation was that the Sadrist movement was not included because it was not registered as a political party with Iraq’s electoral commission. Why no one had bothered to mention this before was not explained. Al-Shahristani explained that “the Sadrist movement announced that it supports the religious authorities and its call for Iraqis to hold elections. It also supports [Sistani’s] list

A few days later, Muqtada al-Sadr himself addressed the issue when he declared that he was asking other religious leaders to push for a guarantee of an immediate departure of foreign troops after the elections in Iraq. “Otherwise,” he said, “our participation [in the elections] will be unlikely.”

Al-Sadr’s statement notably lacked any declaration of support for the United Iraqi Alliance. No satisfactory explanation was offered for his movement’s sudden change of plans, nor any clarification about whether or not al-Sadr actually supports the UAI. The deadline for registration has since passed, which means that the Sadrist movement cannot participate in the January elections.

The result of the breakdown in negotiations between the Sadrist movement and the religious establishment headed by Sistani is that a large segment of Iraq’s population will not be represented in the elections. This means, for example, that the millions who live in Sadr City - the predominantly Shi’a Baghdad neighbourhood formerly designated “Saddam City” but renamed in honour of al-Sadr’s father after April 2003 – will be denied a voice.

An election boycott had already been organised by many of Iraq’s Sunni political parties following the November offensive against Fallujah. However, al-Sadr’s boycott leaves an equally large proportion of Iraq’s population without the opportunity to vote for their natural representatives. And the fact that al-Sadr has decided to boycott the process reveals that the divisions within Iraq are being drawn along political as well as sectarian lines.

Muqtada al-Sadr’s decision not to support the United Iraqi Alliance is no surprise. There is a long history of antagonism between many different segments of Iraq’s Shi’a community. One source of severe friction within the community is Iranian influence on Iraq’s Shi’a community and the question of how independent the latter should be from Iran.

The Shi’a mosaic

Although they share the same beliefs as their co-religionists in Iran, Iraqi Shi’a are Arabs and are suspicious of Iranian influence in their country. Muqtada al-Sadr has always marked his independence from foreign powers, but many of his rivals amongst Iraq’s Shi’a elite have close ties to Iran. Sciri, for example, was founded in Tehran and has long received logistical and financial support from Iran. Its militia even sided with Iran against Iraq during the 1980-88 war between the two countries. The Dawa party also has strong ties to Iran. In addition, Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s highest religious authority, was himself born in Iran.

Three recent events further highlight this division. First, the makeup of the political coalition headed by Sistani recently prompted Hazim al-Shaalan - Iraq’s interim defence minister and a Shi’a - to refer to the UIA as the “Iranian list”. He went on to say that Iran’s clerical leaders “want to liquidate [Iraqis]. This black horde. They shall not pass but over our dead bodies.”

Second, the coalition of thirty-eight Muslim parties composing the Shi’a political council broke away from the United Iraqi Alliance on 30 November. A group spokesman echoed al-Shaalan’s remarks: “we don’t want to be an extension of Iran inside Iraq. We found out that the top ten names in the list are extremist Shi’a Islamists who believe in the rule of religious clerics.”

Third, there has been much speculation about a supposed influx of Iranian citizens into Iraq over recent weeks, allegedly orchestrated in order to influence the election outcome in favour of pro-Iranian parties (on this see here and here).

These divisions within Iraq’s Shi’a community became evident even in the first days of American occupation in 2003. On 14 April that year, an armed group associated with Muqtada al-Sadr surrounded Ali al-Sistani’s home in Najaf and ordered him to leave the country by the end of the day. According to Ayatollah Dibaji, a Sistani spokesman, its intention was to rid Najaf of all Shi’a leaders linked to Iran. “They went to his house and told him to leave Najaf because he is not Arab”, he said.

In August 2004, the tables were turned when the American military launched an offensive in Najaf against al-Sadr’s militia that until then had been controlling the city. On the same day that the military operations began, al-Sistani left the city for the first time in years in order to seek medical treatment in London. He returned to Najaf three weeks later in a bid to stop the violence, but only after al-Sadr’s militia had been decimated by the American military.

This manifestly contradictory situation is impossible to ignore. The American administration has consistently warned Iran not to interfere with the political process in Iraq. On 15 December 2004, President Bush said that “(we) will continue to make it clear to both Syria and Iran that meddling in the internal affairs of Iraq is not in their interests”. Yet the United States, whether deliberately or not, appears to be helping Iraqis with strong ties to Iran increase their influence in Iraq to the detriment of other, more independent forces.

The beneficiaries of this American behaviour included Sciri and Dawa, both of which enjoy privileged links with the Iranian theocracy. In addition, their UIA coalition is practically the only major Shi’a grouping to participate in the elections, which guarantees it a favourable outcome. Muqtada al-Sadr was obviously never a good candidate to be the United States’s ally, but even a rejection of his movement need not have entailed United States support for Sciri and the like.

Why elections now?

This still leaves unanswered the mystery of why the United States is so determined that the elections will be held on the scheduled date of 30 January 2005. A series of the US’s friends and partners - including Iraq’s two major Kurdish parties; the country’s other significant secular forces; European foreign-policy supremo Javier Solana; ex-US president Jimmy Carter; Jordan’s King Abdullah - have all called for a postponement.

The logic of such a move would be to allow more moderate political forces to emerge, regroup, and perhaps even counterbalance the United Iraqi Alliance. The US, however, is proving intransigent on the timetable. Its thinking is a puzzle: before the March 2003 invasion, everyone assumed that the Bush administration was determined to prevent Iran gaining influence in Iraq.

In any event, and assuming the elections do indeed go ahead, the critical point will come when Iraq’s newly-elected representatives seek to use their mandate to impose unpopular policies on those Iraqi citizens who neither participated nor were represented in the elections. In such circumstances, the reaction of people who are now advocating a boycott - including the powerful Sadrist movement as well as the majority of the Sunni community - could lead to a disastrous outcome, one that may even amount to civil war.

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