This is the second of a three-part series in advance of Saturday’s provincial elections in Iraq. Today I report on an interview with a leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI). Tomorrow I’ll provide an account of an interview with a leader of Iraq’s secular, nationalist bloc.

Karim Almusawi is the Washington representative of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), formerly known as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). On Monday, I interviewed him in his office in downtown Washington about the upcoming elections in Iraq.

SCIRI was founded in Iran in 1982, and its military wing, the Badr Brigade, was originally a division of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. Since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, which helped to install SCIRI as a powerful part of Iraq’s ruling elite, SCIRI and Badr have used both religion and paramilitary force to consolidate their influence in Baghdad and the south, and there have been widespread reports of Badr-led assassination teams carrying out hundreds of killings of opponents, including former Baathists.

Today, ISCI is a leading party in Iraq, especially in Najaf and the south, and it controls the provincial councils and governorates in six Iraqi provinces: Baghdad, Najaf, Babil, Qadisiyah, Dhi Qar, and Muthanna. According to many analysts, ISCI is expected to suffer a significant setback in the January 31 vote, losing seats both to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Islamic Dawa party, an allied but rival Shiite religious party, and to a resurgent secular and nationalist movement that includes, for the first time, many Sunni-led parties.

But Almusawi isn’t expecting losses. Indeed, he says that ISCI will expand the number of provinces it controls. “We are working very hard to get Basra, to get Karbala, and others,” he says. Controlling those cities is critical to ISCI’s grand design, namely, the creation of a large, autonomous region in Iraq’s nine southern provinces. Critics, including other Shiite parties, say that ISCI is laying the groundwork for the partition of Iraq.

I asked Almusawi, a former engineer who’s represented ISCI in Washington since 2002, if he thought Iraqis would use the election to repudiate the Shiite-Kurdish ruling alliance, especially because of its failure to provide jobs and to deliver basic services such as electricity, gas, water, and trash collection. Almusawi says that Iraqis will blame Maliki, not ISCI, for the government’s failure. “Iraqis recognize who is leading the country–the prime minister. That’s why we ran by ourselves. Iraqis recognize that ISCI is not in power,” he says.

After allying with Maliki’s Dawa party in 2005 as part of the United Iraqi Alliance, this time ISCI is running on its own, using the powerful imagery of the ayatollah who founded the movement during his exile in Iran, Muhammad Baqr al-Hakim. (Hakim was assassinated in 2003, after returning to Iraq, and the movement today is led by his brother, Abdel Aziz al-Hakim.) The party’s name on the ballot is Shahid al-Mehrab, a honorific title widely seen as referring to the founder. In its election material, ISCI makes generous use of religious Shiite imagery, despite a supposed ban on doing so.

Now Almusawi lambastes Maliki. “We don’t agree with many of his policies. He’s calling for amending the constitution [to] centralize power. He’s against federalism. He believes that federalism will divide Iraq. We totally disagree.” Almusawi also says that Maliki is using Iraq’s state-controlled media unfairly, and he critizied Maliki sharply for creating tribal councils with government funds. “We told him, frankly, we don’t support your councils, we don’t like using government money for tribal leaders.”

Recent polling shows that ISCI, widely perceived by Iraqis to be a Shiite religious movement, has lost favor. According to data released by the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, in Washington, only 27 percent of Iraqis have a positive opinion of Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, while 65 percent have a negative opinion. According to the same poll, only 8 percent of Iraqis support ISCI as their first choice. Many reports have indicated that Iraqis are disenchanted with the power of the Shiite (and Sunni) religious parties, and that they are leaning toward the secular parties.

Almusawi rejects that. “I don’t like the seculars. But ISCI is not calling for an Islamic republic. We have a constitution. But Iraqis, Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, have a religious mentality. We are mostly a religious people. So people are thinking mostly to vote for the religious parties, not for seculars or liberals.”

Of course, ISCI is widely seen as an ally of Iran, even as agents of Iran, and it’s assumed that Iran’s intelligence service provides funds to support ISCI. When I asked Almusawi if ISCI gets money from Iran, he replied, “Of course not!” He admitted that, in Iraq, some people say that ISCI is too close to Iran, yet he rejects the charge that ISCI does Iran’s bidding. “We are friends of Iran. But we are not Iranian agents,” he says. “The Americans know that we have an ongoign dialogue with Iran, and we’ve called for a dialogue between the United States and Iran.”