Iraq’s Resurgent Nationalism

Iraq’s Resurgent Nationalism

For the first time in six years, there’s light at the end of the tunnel in Iraq. A nationalist Shiite-Sunni alliance provides a perfect opportunity for Obama to accelerate the withdrawal of US forces.



For the first time in six years, it’s possible to see the light at the end of the tunnel in Iraq. Despite all their flaws–and there were many–the January 31 elections in fourteen of Iraq’s eighteen provinces ratified the resurgence of secular nationalism. A large majority of voters repudiated the Shiite and Sunni religious parties and the Kurdish separatists. And in so doing, they broke free of the rigid confines of the ethno-sectarian politics that has dominated the Iraqi scene since 2003. The results mean that the Obama administration may soon have to deal with a vastly different cast of characters in Iraq–politicians less willing to tolerate a long-term US presence and firmly opposed to a special relationship between Baghdad and Washington.

Voters ousted unpopular governors and provincial councils controlled by the ruling US-backed alliance in a sweeping throw-the-bums-out election, raising the possibility of a fundamental reordering of politics. Though the elections were limited to the provinces, the results suggest that the national elections scheduled for December may usher in a government that will differ radically from the ruling alliance, many of whose leaders are or represent former exiles installed by US occupation authorities in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion.

Not that Iraq has suddenly become an oasis of democracy. Key political actors on all sides remain bolstered by paramilitary armies. Unemployment is vast, and basic services–electricity, water, trash collection, healthcare–are intermittent or nonexistent. The army and police are infiltrated by militias, and their loyalty is suspect. Baghdad is a bewildering maze of blast walls and sealed-off enclaves surrounding the fortress-like Green Zone, and the city is reeling from years of brutal ethnic cleansing. The provincial capitals are rife with intrigue, and many of them–Kirkuk, Mosul, Baquba and Basra, for instance–are perched at the brink of civil strife. And the elections themselves, in which millions of voters were disenfranchised, were deeply flawed.

But the results show that a new Iraq is struggling to emerge. The United Iraqi Alliance, the all-powerful bloc of Shiite religious parties, is dead and buried, and the key party within the alliance–the Iran-backed, clergy-based Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI)–was blown off the electoral map. Another component of the alliance, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s Islamic Dawa Party, has all but disappeared, while Maliki has morphed into a would-be nationalist, cloaking his fundamentalist sectarian leanings in the guise of a benevolent strongman. The nationalist Sunnis, having boycotted or been shut out of the political process since 2003, came roaring back in four northern provinces. In the process, Sunni-led nationalists, tribal parties, former Baathists and ex-military leaders, the Awakening movement (the anti-Al Qaeda, tribal-based militia movement that emerged in late 2006 in the Sunni heartland and formed a tactical alliance with the US Army) and various secular parties nearly obliterated the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP), a branch of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, which had opted to join the ruling Shiite-Kurdish alliance in the government. And the Kurds, who chose not to hold elections in their separatist region in Iraq’s north and who blocked a vote in the disputed Kirkuk region, suffered devastating losses in ethnically mixed border provinces where they’d wielded power until now. Separatists who supported the virtual partition of Iraq, such as ISCI and the Kurds, were resoundingly defeated.

“The Iraqi political map has been redrawn,” says Raed Jarrar, the Iraq consultant to the American Friends Service Committee. “There’s been a significant shift from the sectarian-based politics of 2005 to an electoral map based on people’s politics and not their ethnic or religious identity.”

The emergence of Iraq’s nationalist movement has been a long time coming. Built around parties opposed to the influence of both Iran and the United States, it began to take shape in the fall of 2007 after a series of US actions: a Senate vote in favor of a proposal from then-Senator Joe Biden to partition Iraq into three mini-states; the brutal killing of seventeen Iraqis in Baghdad by Blackwater security forces; and US support for a law that would have opened the door to privatization of Iraq’s oil industry. This helped galvanize a twelve-party alliance, including Sunni and Shiite nationalists, secular parties, ex-Baathists, former Iraqi resistance groups and various independents, that worked to preserve the country’s state-owned oil companies and to combat efforts by the Kurds and ISCI to carve Iraq into regional fiefdoms. By mid-July of last year, they’d united in a bloc called the July 22 Gathering.

The July 22 group was a reaction to five years of ethnic and sectarian politicking initiated by US blunders in the wake of the invasion. From the start, the occupation authorities parceled out power according to sectarian and ethnic quotas. They first handed power, in the form of the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC), to ISCI (which at that time went by the name Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq); Maliki’s Islamic Dawa Party; and the two Kurdish parties. The United States then pushed hard for elections. Held in January 2005, they were a fiasco, widely seen as rigged in favor of the Shiite religious parties and the Kurds, and thus boycotted by virtually the entire Sunni Arab population. Those elections brought to power the current Shiite-Kurdish alliance. It was, says the International Crisis Group, “a victory by parties that, while popularly elected, lacked deep popular legitimacy.”

The utter failure of that government to provide jobs and basic services turned millions of voters against the ruling bloc, especially the religious parties. “Over the last four years, the religious parties tried everything and proved that they are not successful leaders,” says Aiham Alsammarae, Iraq’s former minister of electricity, who is now working with the party of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shiite. “Even in the south, the religious leaders are losing their influence. People are asking, What have they done for us? There are no jobs. There is no electricity or water. The schools and hospitals are terrible. And there is so much corruption.”

By January 2008, it was already beginning to appear as if new elections would result in a landslide in favor of the opposition. Among the Shiites, the populist, grassroots appeal of Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army led to predictions that the Sadrists would sweep ISCI and Dawa out of office. Among the Sunnis, the Awakening movement and the related Sons of Iraq militia were rallying hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, often led by tribal leaders, into a formidable nationalist force. And big gains seemed likely for secular parties, including those led by former Baathists such as Allawi and by Saleh al-Mutlaq, leader of the National Dialogue Front. Not only that, the four ruling parties were feuding among themselves.

Despite the growing power of the nationalists, the United States continued to back the Shiite-Kurdish bloc, and Maliki in particular (several attempts by the opposition to organize a parliamentary vote of no confidence against Maliki were rudely blocked by the US Embassy). According to Reidar Visser, an Iraq expert at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, Washington was backing a narrow and shrinking coalition that represented no more than a quarter of Iraq’s population.

Maliki and his coalition partners were well aware that provincial elections could be a disaster for them. Using various legal and quasi-legal actions, they angled to prevent a vote. “The four ruling parties were working hard to postpone provincial elections because they knew they’d lose so badly,” says Jarrar.

The election, while relatively free of violence, was hardly a model of democracy. Turnout was far lower than expected, with just over half of 15 million registered voters going to the polls. In some provinces–Baghdad and Anbar, especially–turnout was just 40 percent. Part of the reason for the low turnout was confusion among voters over which of the 7,000 polling stations to go to, but much of it was simply because 4-5 million Iraqis have either been displaced or forced to flee to Syria, Jordan and other countries [for more on the plight of refugees see Ann Jones, page 17]. The vast majority of displaced Iraqis were unable to vote, which drastically altered results in areas such as Baghdad, Diyala and Salahuddin provinces, where Sunnis fled Shiite militias and death squads during the peak years of the civil war. “There were a lot of complaints about IDPs [internally displaced persons] not able to vote,” says Nicolay Mladenov, a European MP from Bulgaria who spent a lot of time in Iraq in the run-up to the vote.

There is nothing remotely resembling a campaign-finance law in Iraq. It is widely assumed that Iran supplied large sums of cash to its favored parties, including ISCI, and that Turkey’s ruling Islamist party backed the IIP. The Iraqi High Election Commission is investigating credible allegations of fraud, including reports of ballot-box stuffing, nearly all of which would have been perpetrated by the ruling alliance. “These elections were not observed by international standards,” says Mladenov. “We don’t have the people on the ground for that.” To its credit, the United Nations trained tens of thousands of poll watchers, but only about 400 international observers were directly involved on election day.

But it was Maliki who muscled his way to big wins in Baghdad, Basra and other provinces in Iraq’s largely Shiite south, and who blatantly used the power of the army, the police, the media and the prime minister’s office to tilt the balance in his favor. Starting early in 2008, Maliki used the army to conduct a series of sweeping offensives in Basra, Maysan and Baghdad’s Sadr City to break the power of Muqtada al-Sadr’s movement. The offensives, which drew intensive US support, including air attacks and intelligence help, “scattered Sadr’s movement to the four winds,” says Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Maliki followed that up by ramming through an arbitrary and selectively enforced measure banning parties with militias from participating in the elections, which was aimed squarely at Sadr’s 60,000-strong Mahdi Army. The International Crisis Group called it “a blatantly biased move in light of the fact that ISCI and the Kurdish parties both retain militias…loyal to their political masters.”

Maliki didn’t stop there. Step by step, he transformed the Iraqi army into a kind of private militia for the office of the prime minister, bypassing the chief of staff to appoint brigade commanders and other officers loyal to himself. He also created a pair of special operations units, the Baghdad Brigade and the Counterterrorism Task Force, that reported directly to him. And he used all three to conduct lethal operations against opponents, ruthlessly rounding up members of Sadr’s movement and key leaders of the Awakening movement. Maliki’s clear intent was to make sure that neither the Sunni nationalists nor the Sadrists were able to enter the election on a level playing field.

But the most decisive action launched last year by Maliki to influence the elections was the creation of lavishly funded “tribal support councils” that served as militias and as the prime minister’s electoral arm. Despite protests from the nationalist opposition and his coalition partners (ISCI and the Kurds), Maliki created a slush fund to back the tribal councils. In Maysan, for instance, he set up at least seventeen separate councils, channeling hefty payoffs to tribal leaders. Payoffs were supposedly capped at $10,000 per council, but Maliki apparently spent a lot more. “If they were expecting $10,000, he gave them easily $100,000 or more, more than they dreamed of,” says Alsammarae. “So they started to work for him.” According to Sam Parker of the US Institute of Peace (USIP), there were rumors that as much as $100 million was funneled to Maliki supporters in suitcases.

Maliki’s tactics were successful enough to guarantee that in the face of a hurricane-force anti-incumbent mood, he would survive. Indeed, he won 38 percent in Baghdad, 37 percent in Basra and came in first, in the 12-23 percent range, in six other southern provinces. It might seem as if Maliki’s success was a victory for political Islam, given his origins in the fundamentalist Shiite religious movement. But not quite.

To be sure, the Dawa Party is an Islamist formation. And like ISCI–whose political origins and militia, the Badr Brigade, can be traced to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps in 1982–Maliki and his Dawa confreres spent long years of exile in Iran. But in the past year Maliki, sensing which way the winds were blowing, dropped all references to religion in his campaign, wrapping himself instead in the flag and running as a nationalist defender of Iraq. (Dawa had already broken into at least three factions, one of which was led by former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari.) According to Alsammarae, Maliki winked as liquor stores, barbershops, DVD sellers and nightclubs reopened in Basra, after years during which religious Shiite militias had shut them down or burned them.

By taking a strong nationalist stand in negotiating the US-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), by standing against the Kurds in disputes over Kirkuk and other embattled areas, and by supporting revision of the Constitution to favor a stronger central government, Maliki made broad appeals to nationalists. Emphasizing security, he went to great lengths to portray himself as a law-and-order candidate, touting his crackdown on the Mahdi Army. “In the eyes of many Iraqis in the south, Maliki was seen as a new strongman, which they craved,” says Joost Hiltermann of the Crisis Group.

As Dawa faded, Maliki built coalitions in the provinces comprising tribal leaders and other notables, often picking people with nationalist, nonreligious credentials. “Maliki was able to go into the provinces and recruit people who were actually popular at the local level,” says USIP’s Parker. Adds Jarrar: “It wasn’t the Dawa Party that ran in these elections. It was a more diverse group of independents and secular figures, in some cases even Sunnis.” As a result, Maliki sits atop a coalition, at least at the provincial level, that is far more nationalist and less religious than Maliki himself. He is at least partly beholden to a movement that won’t easily tolerate his moving back toward an alliance with ISCI and the Kurds.

Meanwhile, in other provinces nationalists and secular parties made big gains. In the north, Nineveh–its capital, Mosul, is Iraq’s third-largest city–came under the near-total control of the Kurds following the 2005 vote. This time, as expected, a fierce Arab nationalist party, Al Hadba, scored a huge victory, reflecting the overwhelming Sunni Arab majority in Nineveh. In Anbar, where the Iraqi resistance began in Falluja and Ramadi five years ago, the Sunni fundamentalist Iraqi Islamic Party–which dominated the 2005 election there, in which a mere 2 percent of voters went to the polls–was massively outvoted by a combination of tribal, Awakening-linked parties and Saleh al-Mutlaq’s secular party, which placed first. In Salahuddin, another Sunni-majority province, the IIP–which also dominated that province in 2005–won just 14 percent, with a combination of Allawi’s and Mutlaq’s secular parties and Awakening-linked parties winning more than half the vote. And in war-torn Diyala province, previously controlled by Shiites and Kurds, a broad coalition of Sunni-led parties, including the IIP and Allawi’s party, made major gains.

Remarkably, the Sadrist movement managed to survive Maliki’s all-out campaign against it. Although banned from running as a political party, the Sadrists created several independent electoral lists widely seen as Sadrist fronts. They made respectable showings in Baghdad and several southern provinces, including Maysan, Babil and Dhi Qar. “Don’t count the Sadrists out, ever,” says Hiltermann. “The Sadrist trend has an internal coherence that can’t be underestimated.” Having built its organizational apparatus mosque by mosque in secret during the Saddam era, the Sadrists aren’t easily intimidated. “They’re just lying low,” says Hiltermann, who maintains close contact with Sadrist leaders in Iraq.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the election was the first-place finish by a secular party led by Yousef Majid al-Habboubi in Karbala, home to one of Iraq’s two holiest Shiite shrines. Habboubi, a former Baathist who served as a top provincial official during Saddam’s era, is a moderate, secular Shiite. Perhaps no other election result demonstrates how thoroughly Iraqi voters are disenchanted with the religious parties that have been ruling Iraq. In 2005, the United Iraqi Alliance was assembled under the guidance of Najaf’s Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a bearded octogenarian born in Iran, who is revered by religious Shiites. But this year a popular slogan in the Shiite south was: “We’ve been fooled by the Marjaiya [the Najaf-based clergy]. We have elected amoral people!” ISCI, ignoring public sentiment, illegally made use of religious symbolism in its campaign materials, and it was crushed. ISCI’s ties to Iran’s ayatollahs worked against it, too, as thousands of text messages were sent out by unknown parties to Iraqi voters urging them to “stop Iranian influence in Iraqi affairs.”

Just as Maliki adopted nationalist garb and built coalitions with secular tribal leaders, the Sunni fundamentalist IIP was forced to broaden its appeal in order to survive. It, too, now includes large numbers of less religious, less sectarian and more nationalist officials and voters. “It’s a new political class that has been recruited into political parties and movements,” says Parker of USIP. “Many of these guys are much more hard-core than the IIP. They’re tougher, they’re more anti-Iran and they’re nationalists.”

Iraq’s ruling parties–ISCI, the two Kurdish parties and what’s left of Maliki’s Dawa–still control Parliament, and Maliki retains his power as prime minister. However, the rules of the game have changed. Despite his personal electoral gains in the provinces, Maliki is walking a tightrope at the national level. He’s burned his bridges to ISCI and the Kurds by standing up in favor of a strong central government and by his heavy-handed campaign tactics against his former allies. The July 22 coalition–which includes Sunnis, secularists and Sadrists, each of whom have large voting blocs in Parliament–may try to topple Maliki in a vote of no confidence long before the next elections, and they may try to persuade Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani to jump ship and support them. (Those elections are set for December, but in January a key Maliki ally suggested that they might be postponed until at least March 2010, an indication that the prime minister is worried.)

To survive, Maliki is going to have to deliver the goods to the nationalists of the July 22 bloc, and that means supporting major changes in the Constitution and giving the nationalists tangible power in key institutions, including the army. “He has to get serious about constitutional reform and national reconciliation,” says Visser. “It’s good that Maliki is beginning to understand what the Iraqi people want, but there’s a long way to go before he’s seen as a truly nationalist figure.”

The emergence of a nationalist movement is a direct challenge to the two countries with the greatest influence in Baghdad: the United States and Iran. Since 2003 Iran, which has accumulated vast power in Iraq, overt and covert, has been satisfied with a weak central government that is under the control of Shiite religious parties. If that begins to change–if the religious parties’ influence falls, and if Iran sees the possibility of a strong regime in Baghdad–Tehran might decide to cause trouble, making use of ISCI’s Badr Brigade or the so-called “special groups” that broke away from Sadr’s Mahdi Army. That worries Iyad Allawi, who has re-emerged as a potential prime minister. “Maliki won’t be able to fix things unless the whole political process is fixed,” Allawi told The Nation. “And there will be an intervention by Iran to prevent that rebalancing of the political process. So there is the possibility of a lot of bloodshed.” So far, Iran is placing its bets on longtime ally Maliki, who made a point of visiting Tehran right after the election. Manouchehr Mottaki, Iran’s foreign minister, then traveled to Baghdad, announcing that Iran will establish two more consulates, in Karbala and in two Kurdish cities.

For advocates of America’s imperial project in Iraq, the re-emergence of Iraqi nationalism is both good and bad news. Good, because Iraqi nationalists are first and foremost anti-Iranian, and they will work hard to curtail Iran’s interference. Bad, because precisely to the extent that democracy is allowed to flourish and that authentic Iraqis find their voices, the presence of US troops will not be tolerated. Having staked its fortunes since 2003 on a coalition (including ISCI, Dawa and the Kurds) that is also the most pro-Iranian, the United States is now going to have to accommodate an Iraqi political class that will blame Washington for the country’s devastation and for propping up pro-Iranian separatists and religious extremists.

For President Obama, the handwriting is on the wall. If, on the advice of US military commanders, he attempts to prolong the occupation, he will run afoul of Iraq’s newfound self-confidence. By the same token, the president can curry enormous favor in Iraq by accelerating withdrawal. Indeed, an early test of that proposition will come this summer, when Iraqis vote in a national referendum on whether to ratify the US-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement, which allows US troops to stay in Iraq until the end of 2011. Washington can expect strong opposition from the nationalist movement, and the outcome of the referendum is uncertain. If voters reject the SOFA, Obama will have a deadline of twelve months to get all US forces out of Iraqi territory; if they vote in favor, they will do so only because the 2011 deadline seems plausible. In either case, they’re not likely to look favorably upon any US effort to create a long-lasting military presence beyond that deadline.

That doesn’t mean the immediate future is going to be peaceful. Obama is going to have to resist those who urge him, at the first sign of increased violence in Iraq, to slow down the withdrawal. He is going to have to work hard to get Iraq’s neighbors, including Iran, to persuade their friends, allies and agents to avoid conflict. Obama will have to work with the UN, the Europeans, Russia and oil-hungry Asian powers such as China to kick-start a global effort to invest tens of billions in Iraqi reconstruction, allowing those countries to sign mutually beneficial deals with the Iraqi oil industry. And if violence does erupt, Obama is going to have to let the fever run its course.

The election results prove conclusively that a nationalist Sunni-Shiite cross-sectarian alliance, much of which has roots in the insurgency that followed the US invasion, is reaching for power. There’s no stopping it. By prolonging the occupation, the United States is only standing in its way.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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