Iraq: new alliances, old repression

Zaid Al-Ali
3 September 2009

Iraq's main political actors are engaged in intense political jockeying in advance of the country's parliamentary elections scheduled for January 2010. The formation of the al-Ittilaf al-Watani al-Iraqi (Iraqi National Alliance), announced on 23 August 2009, is part of a long process of political realignment among Iraq's old political parties that may have a big impact on the election result. But whatever the outcome of this process, which has been fraught with volatility, many Iraqis fear that the political manoeuvring will do little to improve their lives - and that violence will again displace politics as a means of setting the country's course.  

Zaid Al-Ali is an attorney at the New York Bar and specialises in international commercial arbitration. He has graduated from King's College London, the Sorbonne University in Paris and Harvard Law School.

He is currently writing a book on the Iraqi constitution with Jõrg Fedtke, to be published in 2009

Among Zaid Al-Ali's articles in openDemocracy:

"Iraq: the lost generation" (7 November 2004)

"Iraq's dangerous elections" (23 December 2004)

"The end of secularism in Iraq" (18 May 2005)

"Lebanon's pre-election hangover" (27 May 2005)

"Iraq: a constitution or an epitaph?" (16 August 2005)

"Iraq: a constitution to nowhere" (14 October 2005)

"Iraq's war of elimination" (21 August 2006)

"Saving Iraq: a critique of Peter W Galbraith" (26 October 2006)

"Lebanon on the brink - but of what?" (18 December 2006)

"The United States in Iraq: the case for withdrawal" (19 January 2007)

"Iraqis in freefall" (21 March 2007)

"Iraq: a wall to conquer us" (7 May 2007)

"Lebanon's Palestinian shame" (19 June 2007)

"What Obama means for Iraq" (13 November 2008)

"The Cairo speech: Arab Muslim voices" (8 June 2009) - with Karim Kasim

"Iraq: face of corruption, mask of politics" (2 July 2009) The electoral season

In the six years since Iraq's sudden emergence from the political wilderness, the ruling elite that came to govern the country under the rubric of United States military power has slowly adapted to two hard realities. 

The first is that no Iraqi political party can secure the support of more than 10% of the population (even though Iraq's political exiles, returning after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, had convinced both themselves and their US and British patrons that they would command immense popular appeal).

The second, and a corollary of the first, is that Iraqi voters are more sophisticated than had been expected. Most appear to know what they want from government and have therefore rejected parties that either uphold principles that they disagree with or whose performance has been particularly unsatisfactory. In that context, political parties have sought to entrench their positions by eliminating their rivals, entering into grand alliances that disempower voters and engaging in extravagant posturing for electoral purposes. 

In the provincial elections of January 2009, the largest share of the vote was won by the Rule of Law Alliance, which combined the forces of the Dawa Party of prime minister Nouri al-Maliki and the Independents' List. The result reflected a significant shift from the first post-regime-change national vote in 2005, when the Dawa Party was considered to be a minor and disunited sideshow compared to more assertive Shi'a parties. 

Al-Maliki's success reflected in part the credit he was able to claim for the relative improvement in security in many of Iraq's provinces in 2008. But he also won support on account of his argument (whether convinced or calculating is less than clear) in favour of a strong central government that could resist the trend to sectarian-based federalism.

The relative success of this resistance was confirmed in January 2009 by the decline in the vote (by as much as two-thirds in some provinces) going to the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (tainted by its close association with Iran and its project to establish a loose federal state) and the Sadr Movement (composed of followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, and considered by most to be a net contributor to the country's civil conflict). 

Since the provincial elections, al-Maliki has tried to build on the Rule of Law Alliance's success by continuing to play the "security card". For example, he organised a series of photo-opportunities to celebrate the withdrawal of American troops from Iraqi cities at the end of June 2009; and he sought to consolidate the impression of improved security by ordering the removal of Baghdad's "blast walls" (a process subsequently halted in response to renewed violence). The prime minister has also appealed to popular sentiment with an endorsement of non-sectarian alliances. 

But the losers of the provincial elections have been active too, in particular by grouping together against their common political foe. The new Iraqi National Alliance brings together forces that have long been diametrically opposed to each other. They include the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and the Sadr Movement, led respectively by the Hakim and Sadr families, powerful Islamist clans that have been decades-long rivals; and the Fadhila Party, joining an alliance that weeks earlier it had described as a sectarian grouping of corrupt individuals. Fadhila had performed disastrously in the provincial elections, being almost eliminated in areas that they had previously controlled. 

The reach of the alliance goes further. It accommodates perennial losers such as Ahmed Chalabi, who has scored terribly in all Iraq's post-2003 elections, and some token Sunni and Kurdish representatives (as a counterweight to the alliance's sectarian balance). The fact that the alliance is officially headed by Ibrahim Jaafari, who was prime minister (and leader of the Dawa Party) when Iraq's slide into civil war began, is symbolic: for Jaafari is now nominally in charge of the very parties that once combined to oust him from power. Indeed, the deeper reality is that this is a coalition of forces that can agree only on who and what they are against (the alliance's remarkably bland electoral programme ticks off routine objectives such as improving security and protecting the environment, all of which the parties are obliged to pursue in any event as per Iraq's constitution).   

The same difference

The Iraqi National Alliance has stated that its doors remain open to any political party, and has specifically invited even Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa Party to join its ranks. The very suggestion highlights the prime minister's political vulnerability, especially over one of the issues he has sought to make his own: Iraq's security. This is highlighted by the massive bombing of several state institutions in Baghdad on 19 August 2009, which left ninety-five people dead; a stark reminder of the extreme lengths that al-Maliki's enemies are willing to go to damage his electability. 

But whether or not the prime minister and his group joins the alliance or the new formation wins power, it is unlikely that much will change in the lives of most Iraqis. For, though it is easy to forget amidst a wave of pre-election speculation, many of the alliance's members are in fact part of Iraq's current government - which is one of the most corrupt that the country has ever seen. 

There are numerous indicators of the ruling elite's incompetence and lack of commitment to the welfare of the Iraqi people. The failure to restore the decrepit social services (such as education, electricity, and healthcare) even to the level of the 1970s is but one. The oil ministry, under the control of an al-Maliki ally, has managed to install just one-third of the meters that are required to estimate the amount of oil being extracted at source (thus facilitating larceny on a grand scale).  Oil production itself remains below pre-war levels, despite repeated assurances that this would be achieved.

The trade ministry is responsible for Iraq's food-rationing programme; ruled by Dawa operatives, it remains one of Iraq's most corrupt and inept institutions. Yet when the Majlis an-Nuwwāb al-Irāqiyy (council of representatives, or parliament) sought to oust the minister from his position on account of the wholesale corruption in the institution, al-Maliki came to his defence and sought to prevent him from being prosecuted for wholesale corruption. The finance ministry, which is run by the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, has not produced closing accounts for the annual state budget for four years. 

Even more seriously, Iraq's ruling elite has paid almost no attention to Iraq's deteriorating environment and water resources - at a time when desertification is out of control, the agricultural sector is being ravaged and the country is being smothered by almost permanent dust-storms. Iraq's environment has deteriorated in the past few years to such an extent that for the first time in living memory entire villages and towns are being abandoned and their inhabitants forced into internal-displacement (IDP) camps by drought and desertification. The longer the current group of parties maintains its stranglehold on power, the more likely it is that this damage will become permanent. 

A factor of institutional corruption is that there is no proper legal regulation of the management and financing of political parties; as a result there is nothing to stop Iraqi parties from seeking funds from neighbouring countries, and coming under their influence. The Iraqi government has also failed to enforce rules that forbid senior officials from maintaining dual citizenship; more than half of the current government's ministers hold foreign passports, and it is widely believed that most would be willing to abandon Iraq if it suited their interests. 

The parties and individuals that make up the alliance and the al-Maliki government, as well as most of the parties represented in the council of representatives, are collectively responsible for Iraq's appalling social situation. As the United States military continues its scheduled withdrawal, their failure will become ever more apparent. So long as the governing elite draws on the same group of politicians, it is difficult to imagine any particular alliance making a great difference.  

The Kurdish example

Iraq's present governing elite is as corrupt as the occupation that ultimately brought it to power. In this bleak situation, the sudden appearance of two major opposition alliances in the Kurdistan region offers a glimmer of hope. 

The Change Alliance and the Reform Alliance together have managed to break the duopoly of power long maintained in Kurdistan by the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) - in the election of 25 July 2009, the combined share of power of the two established groups fell from 95% to 57%. The two new alliances subsequently rejected an invitation to join the Kurdistan regional government (KRG), opting instead to serve the people by working in opposition to expose the KDP and PUK's corrupt and inefficient government through their offices in the Kurdish parliament. This refusal to be co-opted is a further sign of political maturity.

It seems that in the rest of Iraq, parties are incapable of long-term planning of this nature; they find the lure of power and of control over a ministry's funds too tempting to resist. 

The Kurdish region is distinct in another way: it benefits from strong security and from a near-total absence of foreign troops and influence. Perhaps change in the rest of Iraq will only come once these two conditions are matched in Baghdad. But the formation of new alliances between old parties that have bled Iraq dry will not be an agent of the change Iraqis need. A serious improvement in Iraqis' lives will only become possible when Iraq's corrupt ruling parties are finally removed from power.

Among openDemocracy's many articles on Iraq's politics and conflicts:

Sami Zubaida, "The rise and fall of civil society in Iraq" (5 February 2003)

Peter Sluglett, "Iraq's short century: old problems, new perspectives" (3 June 2003)

Fred Halliday, "Looking back on Saddam Hussein" (7 January 2004)

Sami Zubaida, "Democracy, Iraq and the middle east" (18 November 2005)

Sami Ramadani, "Iraq: not civil war, occupation" (7 December 2006)

Tareq Y Ismael, "The ghost of Saddam Hussein" (30 January 2007)

Volker Perthes, "Iraq in 2012: four scenarios" (11 September 2007)

Charles Tripp, "Iraq: the politics of the local" (25 January 2008)

Safa A Hussein, "Iraq's political space" (18 February 2008)

Robert Springborg, "Uncle Sam in Iraq: the war of narratives" (20 March 2008)

Reidar Visser, "Basra's second battle decoded" (31 March 2008)

Reidar Visser, "The United States and Iraq: still getting it wrong" (3 October 2008)

Fred Halliday, "The futures of Iraq" (4 December 2008)

Joost R Hiltermann, "Iraq's elections: winners, losers, and what's next" (10 February 2009)

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