Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Shia Rivals Battle for Control of South

Prime minister’s party and independents hope to unseat dominant Shia party.
By IWPR-trained reporters
Iraq’s Shia parties are engaged in a fierce political battle for control of the southern provinces, where a coalition backed by the prime minister is attempting to break the dominance of the country’s most powerful political alliance.

The forthcoming provincial council elections have pitted Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition against the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, SIIC.

Faced with challenges from smaller Shia coalitions and a disgruntled electorate, the rift among Shia parties has emerged as a significant political drama ahead of the January 31 polls.

SIIC is the dominant player in Iraqi Shia politics. In addition to controlling most of nine predominantly Shia provinces, SIIC also holds the most seats of any coalition in parliament, has armed supporters and enjoys wide-reaching influence in mosques and among Shia clerics.

But incumbents are not especially popular in this provincial election, and Maliki’s Dawa party has bolstered its standing by stressing the need for a stronger central government and better public services – two messages that resonate with some voters who are fed up with local politics.

One of the issues splitting Shia parties is their disagreement over federalism and the role of the central government in governance.

SIIC has a religious background, opposes a strong central government and campaigns for a large Shia federal state in the south that will enjoy similar autonomy to the Kurdistan region in the north.

These policies conflict with Maliki’s less obviously religious agenda and his belief in strengthening Baghdad’s power over the provinces.

The Dawa party and the State of Law coalition are playing down their Shia Islamist roots. Dawa, which is campaigning on a populist message of “change” in local politics, currently only controls the provincial council in Karbala.

In recent months, however, Maliki has broadened his power. In particular, he has solidified the backing of tribes by incorporating them in his controversial “support councils” – local bodies paid for by the central government.

Shia leaders on the provincial council complain these new councils circumvent their power.

According to Ali al-Adib, a prominent Dawa leader, SIIC “is fearful that Maliki’s policy of strengthening the role of the central government will lessen their power in the middle and south.

“They are trying to create a weak government in Baghdad, which is absolutely unacceptable”.

However, local leaders and SIIC loyalists say there is already too much federal control over the provinces. They accuse Baghdad of keeping a tight grip on funds and thwarting provincial efforts to boost the economy and provide services.

Shia provinces “saw no development over the past five years because of the central government’s strict rules”, said Jalal al-Din al-Saghir, an SIIC member of parliament.

“We want an expanded federal system that allows for an autonomous system for the middle and south,” he said. “We don’t need a government that controls the authorities of Iraq and drags it back into a dictatorial system.”

The new provincial councils will enjoy more authority than their predecessors, including increased power over their budgets. They are also likely to address whether a new semi-autonomous region should be created in the south, and if their provinces will be included. While SIIC likes the idea of a large region, other Shia parties call for smaller federal states.

According to Sheikh Jasim al-Mindlawi, a supporter of Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in Najaf, in addition to obtaining more power at the local level, whichever party emerges on top in the provincial council elections will also have an upper hand in this year’s parliamentary polls.

The races in Shia provinces are expected to be tighter because Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who holds enormous sway with devout Shias, has refused to endorse any candidate or coalition.

In the 2005 election, Sistani endorsed an alliance of Shia parties that included Dawa and was led by SIIC, or SCIRI, as it was then known.

As the dominant Shia party in Iraq, SIIC has long enjoyed grassroots support from clerics. It is also believed to enjoy the broader backing of the Americans and Iran.

Any other party hoping to get ahead in Shia politics in Iraq must be prepared to take on SIIC. A Sadr loyalist interviewed by the International Crisis Group said “all the parties, without exception, are working against SIIC”.

The oil-rich province of Basra is perhaps the most conflicted and powerful Shia governorate. Its parties are jockeying for 35 provincial council seats.

Fadhila, the ruling Shia party in Basra, shares power in the province with SIIC and Sadr. Sadr, who is believed to be in Iran, is not a formidable presence in the campaign but backs independent candidates and enjoys the support of many clerics.

Anger simmers among Basra voters who complain about widespread corruption, extremist militias, a weak economy and poor services. In addition to having some of Iraq’s largest oil reserves, Basra is also home to the country’s only port – yet poverty is high. Battles among Shia militias and extremists have undermined security and development.

Maliki last year launched a major military offensive that substantially weakened Sadr and his militia in Basra and Baghdad. Sadrists accused Maliki of attacking their fighters in an attempt to build his power ahead of the provincial polls.

Some believe that the ineffectiveness of local governments has led to disillusionment with the incumbent religious parties.

A poll released last week by the government-sponsored National Media Centre found that 42 per cent of Iraqis planned to vote for secular candidates, compared with 31 per cent who said they supported religious coalitions.

Perhaps in recognition of the frustration with their leaders, SIIC and Fadhila have included only a handful of incumbents on their lists in Basra.

Independent candidates and secularists are also trying to challenge incumbents in Shia areas, but it is uncertain whether voters – who can choose individual candidates or coalitions – will know enough about individuals or smaller alliances to cast ballots in their favour.

Over 14,000 candidates are seeking 440 provincial council seats in these elections, which will be held in 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces.

Ruling parties also enjoy “built-in advantages,” according to Joost Hiltermann, International Crisis Group’s Middle East deputy programme director.

“They will make use of their superior access to wealth and patronage to influence the vote,” he warned in a statement. “Fraud is feared in the absence of international observers.”

Yet despite the intense politicking, observers do not believe that the Shia parties – which have had strong militias in the past – will take up arms to settle power disputes.

“There aren’t any concerns that these elections will become violent,” said Abdul-Munam al-Asam, a Baghdad-based political analyst.