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Southern Iraq Gears Up for Elections


By Reidar Visser (http://historiae.org)
23 November 2005


As in many other parts of Iraq, the upcoming electoral battle in the “Deep South” of Iraq around Basra looks set to be a contest between two main coalition tickets.


On the one hand there is list 555, the United Iraqi Alliance, the pro-Shiite Islamist coalition which won last January’s elections and has since governed Iraq together with the largest Kurdish parties. The overall structure of the current bloc resembles last winter’s line-up. But this time the radical Sadrist current has signalled its intention to participate, and there are a few new independents on board, as well as a party catering for the interests of the tiny Shabak ethnic minority of northern Iraq. Notably absent are a few small independent Islamist groups which insist on running separately from the Alliance; they include a Daawa Party breakaway faction which a year ago had almost its entire electorate in the south. In addition to this, Sunni tribal leader Fawaz al-Jarba has left the Alliance. At the local level in the south, the Alliance lists in the individual governorates are remarkable in that candidates for the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) are very much in the background – instead various Sadrist and Daawa Party factions as well as independent Islamists dominate at the top of the lists, confirming tendencies seen in the last local elections. (The exception is SCIRI’s Adil Abd al-Mahdi who is the number one candidate in Dhi Qar/Nasiriyya.)


The main adversary of the United Iraqi Alliance will probably be list 731, the National Iraqi List, headed by Iyad Allawi’s Wifaq Movement. Allawi emerged last January as the champion of the secular, anti-sectarian current in Iraq. But many likeminded politicians failed to join his initiative, and the secularists as a whole remained hopelessly divided. This time, however, their prospects look better: the coalition has been joined at the national level by the Iraqi Communist Party as well as by Sunni leaders from central and northern Iraq like Adnan al-Pachachi, ex-president Ghazi al-Yawir and Falih al-Naqib – and in the south it now includes Iyad Jamal al-Din, a Shiite cleric who advocates the separation of religion and politics. An exception to the trend towards greater internal unity among the secularists is the separate campaign by the Iraq National Congress list (569). The list is fronted by Ahmad Chalabi, and brings together a heterogeneous group of independents and smaller parties, not least the monarchists. This ticket seems likely to compete for voters who basically share the secular political outlook of the National Iraqi List, thus weakening overall political cohesion among Iraq’s non-religious parties. Its partners in Basra include some of the smaller liberal groupings which together picked up a few thousand votes in the last election. Finally, ex-minister of interior Nuri al-Badran, another secularist with southern connections, has also chosen to go it alone with a separate political party. His slogan explicitly aims at rising above sectarian divisions and appeals to Iraqi nationalist sentiment: “I rejected the attacks on Najaf, [Muqtada] al-Sadr and Falluja, and resigned from the ministry”, a reference to his departure from office in 2004 at a time when both Sunni and Shiite radicals were in rebellion against US forces.


A complicating factor in the south is local regionalism. Since the summer of 2004, a movement to establish a separate federal entity for the three southernmost provinces of Iraq (Basra, Maysan and Dhi Qar – iqlim al-janub) has gained ground. But it failed to translate into an electoral alternative during the January 2005 elections, and has dwindled since last summer, when Shiite politicians from central Iraq launched a competing vision of a single sectarian federal unit stretching from Basra all the way to Baghdad – sometimes referred to as a separate Shiistan. This time, the regionalists are indeed running platforms of their own. But it is internal divisions that stand out. A leading advocate of the “Region of the South”, Baqir Yasin, has taken his small party into coalition with Chalabi’s secular alternative, whereas another vocal spokesperson for Basra, Wail Abd al-Latif, has registered as leader of a small independent party (the Movement for Peace and Development) and entered into co-operation with Allawi’s list to become one of its key candidates in Basra. Other separate entities in this category include Islamists associated with a specifically “southern” current, and tribal lists from the areas north of Basra such as Muntafiq and the marshlands. But with its failure to coalesce into a single grouping, the regionalist current stands little chance of resisting the powerful symbolic language of the United Iraqi Alliance ticket, on which the adherents of a much larger, single Shiite federal entity are riding. Similarly, Sunni Muslims in the south – another potential partner for the regionalist leaders and a significant force in areas like Zubayr and Abu al-Khasib outside Basra – are expected to vote instead for the Iraqi Islamic Party, largely seen as a Sunni sectarian alternative.


The south – Basra in particular – is emerging from a tumultuous year which saw a marked increase in the local influence of Islamist militias. Last January the Islamists were able to create the impression locally that the leading cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, had made it incumbent on Shiites to vote for the United Iraqi Alliance. This time all indications are that they will be unable to repeat this tactic, and a more equal battle between Islamists and secularist forces may ensue. The Alliance is also suffering from a somewhat tarnished image after one year in power with little accomplished. But in contrast to most other political currents in the south, the Alliance has strong channels for disseminating its message and seems capable of uniting ranks in critical circumstances. Even all the main rivalling militias in Basra (with the exception of the Thar Allah group) are in theory affiliated with it. At the end of the day, the fate of two of the smaller liberal parties that contested in last January’s elections may prove symptomatic of a wider problem among Iraq’s secularists: after having loomed large in Basra’s leading newspapers throughout the month leading up to the ballot, the Movement of National Brotherhood and the Popular Democratic Assembly were spectacularly dwarfed by the United Iraqi Alliance on voting day, and emerged with only a few hundred votes each in the south. If security is poor and conditions for regular election campaigning unfavourable, simplistic sectarian agitation may once more become the tactic of choice in Iraq’s exploratory democracy.


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