The Magazine

A Drama-Free Election

The Iraqi vote was a victory for Prime Minister Maliki. Now he'll need to do something for the Shiite masses.

Feb 16, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 21 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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"The withdrawal of American troops is not in the interest of Iraq. If America leaves Iraq, it will only benefit Iran," Tamimi continued. A Sunni, a former insurgent, a one-time supporter of al Qaeda who is sometimes described as an "adviser" to the anti-al Qaeda Sunni "Awakening" councils, Tamimi was fairly excited about the provincial elections. A resident of the Abu Ghraib area of Baghdad, he was not running for office himself, though he intended to place himself on the ballot for parliament in the next national election, expected late this year. For him the provincial elections were a dry run, an experiment to see whether the Shiites, specifically the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council of Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, would lose seats and Tamimi's Sunni allies would gain them on Baghdad's provincial council. (As it turned out, SIIC got only 5.4 percent of the Baghdad vote.)

Tamimi understandably liked the idea of Sunni sovereignty over Abu Ghraib, which may be, after the internecine strife, completely Sunni. Saddam Hussein had fortified Abu Ghraib and other Sunni Arab townships surrounding Baghdad with Sunni immigrants after the 1991 Shiite uprising to ensure that he had more manpower to draw on in an emergency. This Sunni suburban ring became the launching pad for the suicide bombers who nearly destroyed Baghdad in 2006. After the defeat of the Sunnis in the 2006-07 Battle of Baghdad, Iraq's capital--viewed by the Sunni Arabs as theirs, the lodestar that had always given them dominance over all of Iraq--became at least 70 percent Shiite. For Tamimi, the provincial elections would at least guarantee that the police who patrolled Abu Ghraib were not "90 percent Shiite under the control of the Supreme Council." Provincial councils have considerable control over the finances and personnel of the local constabularies, which according to Tamimi was the issue for his kith and kin.

But Tamimi's concern for local sovereignty didn't extend to the country. "We want Iraq's sovereignty checked," he calmly stated. "We want the Americans to interfere in the political process," he continued, almost provoking a giggle from me and my Lebanese friend, who has made a specialty of the muqawama, the Sunni resistance between 2004 and 2007. Tamimi denied the rumor that he was a former member of the Islamic Army, a particularly nasty melding of former Baathists with radical Islamists. Like al Qaeda, which the Islamic Army once openly supported, this group killed Shiites and Sunnis with almost equal zeal. Killing Americans was always, however, the organization's raison d'être.

Tamimi, who was born in 1966, stubbornly resisted providing any information about who his political godfather was within the Sunni community. A member of the large and influential Tamimi tribe, which has both prominent Sunnis and Shiites within it, he certainly has a god-father aiding his political aspirations. He proudly described himself as a former member of the "legitimate resistance," which for him were Sunni groups such as the 20th Revolutionary Brigade, the Jaish al-Mujahedeen ("Army of Holy Warriors") and the Ansar al-Islam ("Guardians of Islam"). Only a theologian of the muqawama could dissect the lethal ideological differences--especially the virulence of their anti-Americanism--among these groups. But according to Tamimi, the Sunnis saw the light when the Iraqi Shia, with the Iranians behind them, destroyed Sunni military power in Baghdad.

"The biggest strategic danger in Iraq, in the Middle East, is Iran. No other country poses a similar danger to the region," Tamimi added, revealing a disposition that remains common among Sunni Arabs: Iraq's Shia are the stalking horses of Iran's mullahs. Tamimi allowed that if Iran's influence were not so pervasive and dangerous, "then America could go." But until the Shia could prove their "Iraqiness"--Tamimi didn't say how--the Americans should stop the Shia from fully exercising their democratic muscle. I had the impression that Tamimi thought better of Prime Minister Maliki because Maliki had spilled Shiite blood in Basra in the spring of 2008, when he personally led an assault against Shiite militias in the southern city, and because Maliki hadn't objected too loudly when the American surge extended into Sadr City, the stronghold of Moktada al-Sadr. Tamimi, furthermore, regularly enjoys the hospitality of the Rashid Hotel, using it as his preferred meeting point with all the Green Zone Iraqi power brokers. This probably wouldn't happen if Tamimi had a loathing for Maliki. He certainly seemed to dislike the prime minister less than he dislikes Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, the Shiite whom Arab Sunnis see as just a (fearsome) creature of Tehran.

The Sunnis of Baghdad didn't do brilliantly in the provincial elections. All told, they got just under 11 percent of the vote. Add to this the ballots of the secular Shiite Ayad Allawi, who always attracts some Sunnis, and the count goes up another 8.6 percent. This election certainly did not dethrone the Baghdad power of the Iraqi Islamic party of Tariq al-Hashemi, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is the majority partner on the Tawafiq ("Accordance") list. Men like Tamimi, who were once part of the Sunni resistance but then embraced the Americans and the Awakening, generally aren't fond of Tawafiq Islamists. Virtually alone among Sunni groups, the Islamic party participated in the elections in 2005 and gained local and national power that certainly was not reflective then of the group's real support on the ground.

But it is blessedly clear that Iraq's Sunnis are now wheeling and dealing, trying to ensure, at the polls and behind the scenes with influential and powerful Shiite Arabs, that they can be players--minority stakeholders--in a democratic process. The Sunni dream of domination has in any meaningful sense disappeared. There is, of course, no love lost between the Sunni and Shiite Arabs. It is delusional to hope that these two groups will kiss and make up and pretend, as so many of them once did, that they don't really know or care who is Sunni and Shiite among them; that they're just all Iraqis. That was never true (although it was astonishing to meet American officials back in 2003 and 2004, especially American military advisers, who really did believe the pan-Arab myths that came out of the mouths of many Iraqis).

A danger does exist in Iraq that the Americans could encourage a false hope among the Sunnis that Washington will continue to interfere in the political process and in the domestic security apparatus--the CIA-supported, and heavily Sunni, Iraqi National Intelligence Service comes to mind--and that Sunni Arabs can thereby avoid coming to terms with the fact that they lost the Battle of Baghdad. This is a manageable danger for Washington so long as its concerns about nefarious Iranian influence in Iraq do not induce it to take an increasingly pro-Sunni position, especially when it comes to maintaining Sunni Iraqi security and intelligence forces that are essentially outside the control of the central government. Washington absolutely doesn't want to make Iraq an anti-Iranian battle zone, where we choose our friends primarily by the degree of their hostility towards Tehran's mullahs. The light approach here is certainly the better one.

The Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council did not do well in the provincial elections. Neither did the political lists associated with the militant Sadrists. But one should not conclude that these results reflect a growing anti-Iranian or antireligious sentiment among Shiite voters. The Supreme Council could have lost a lot of votes simply because it has done such a poor job in power, in parliament and in many locales. The Dawa, Maliki's party, on a street level is as religious as the SIIC, and probably would have done poorly at the polls for the same reason but for Maliki, whose Basra success last year transformed his and his party's political chances. Fadhila, an Islamist party with its power center in Basra, got creamed in its home town, winning less than 4 percent of the vote. Islamists appear to be gaining a reputation for being unable to manage themselves, let alone the supply of water and power. This may prove lethal. Move away from security issues--as the vast majority of Iraqis are, talking with increasing loudness about bread-and-butter issues--and the performance of Maliki and the Dawa, let alone other more energetically Islamist parties, has hardly been inspiring.

Yet a note of caution: The Sadrists had many obstacles thrown in their way. The electoral law barring any militia from putting forth a candidate list hung over the Sadrists, who feared that their doing so would incline the Dawa and the SIIC, with America's blessing, to disqualify the list. The Dawa, the SIIC, and the Sadrists are all playing for the Shiite poor, who are the overwhelming majority of the Shiite community. The apparently weak showing of the Sadrists may indicate less than the U.S. embassy would like to believe. Only late in the campaign, under the radar of the Western and the Iraqi press, did the Sadrists begin to push their own candidates on the Ahrar ("The Freemen") list, which captured about 9 percent of Baghdad's votes. Increasingly, it's difficult to say what the Sadrists stand for--beyond their claim to be the most authentic voice of the faithful Shiite poor. The early millenarian zeal that made them seem an Iraqi version of the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah appears to have dulled considerably, and their base may be up for grabs.

Overall, it's probably fair to say that the Iraqi Shia community has taken several steps back from religion-in-politics and from the Iranians in this election. There is palpable anger among the Shia about the abysmal living conditions of much of the community. No jobs, no affordable housing, no health care, paltry pensions, massive corruption, and petty Shiite Saddamism among elected and appointed officials on the Baghdad gravy train have all combined to foul the moods of many. Senior Shiite clerics, especially in the circles around Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, are disgusted that the 2005 elections produced so much for so few and so little for everyone else.

Sistani, despite the very active--some would say too active--political involvement of his son, Muhammad Rida, backed off endorsing anyone in the provincial elections. There are rumors of dissident clerical circles forming in Najaf, religious scholars who are angry that the Howza, the consensus of senior clerics in the holy city, gave its blessing to the Supreme Council in the last election. For these religious scholars, the Supreme Council and perhaps many of Najaf's more senior clerics have shown themselves to be unworthy of the faithful's trust. The terminal illness of Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of SIIC, may make the discussion moot since it is by no means clear that the organization can survive him. Iranian largesse is reportedly not what it once was, and the Supreme Council has failed to develop a grassroots political operation that can nurture talent and loyalty among the Shiite poor. Religion in politics may have gone too far for many Shiites since 2005, and the provincial elections appear to show blowback.

Although it's not hard to find Shiite Iraqis who are thankful for Iranian military aid during the Battle of Baghdad and for softer forms of largesse (Tehran is paying for the refurbishment of the domes of Kazimiyya's shrine, including 800 ounces of new gold leaf), few Shiite Iraqis like the idea of Iranian meddling in their politics. In cosmopolitan Najaf, which contains the shrine to the Caliph Ali, the nephew and son-in-law of the prophet, Iranian pilgrims are everywhere, and both Iraqi and Iranian clerics feel free to speak Persian to each other in the street. There is no sense of linguistic patriotism or priority within the holy city, although everyone realizes that Arabic is the language of God.

In Baghdad, there is no such equanimity. Away from the Kazimiyya shrine, Iranians are few and far between, and Persian is no language with which to make friends. It is a language of foreigners, who may be admired, respected, praised, and feared, but are always alien to what makes Iraqis comfortable with themselves. All Iraqis know Iranians live in a more refined, richer, more powerful civilization. Persian hubris, which Nuri al-Maliki undoubtedly encountered during his exile in Iran, isn't a pretty thing to an Iraqi. If the Americans are wise, they will continue to let culture and language take their course. Counter militarily the Iranian-backed and highly lethal paramilitary "Special Groups," but don't get too paranoid about Iranian agents running amok, buying ministers, generals, and politicians. Patience is the key here. Washington should primarily use soft power and let 1,400 years of history and modern Iraqi nationalism--which, after all, is a Shiite invention--play to its advantage.

Washington now has a breathing spell in Iraq. The national elections in 2005 were all about religious identity. The Shia were under siege. The Sunnis were on the attack. Iraqi society was at war with itself, and we got a wartime result--the Shiite religious parties did well; the secular parties did not. The provincial elections in 2009 were overwhelmingly about post-conflict security--the aftershock of the surge, the Sunni Awakening, and Maliki's armored charge into Basra. The elections empowered, at least on the Shiite side, the status quo. The district of Kazimiyya is again helpful in showing where the Shia are now.

Although covered with garbage, Kazimiyya isn't poor. The pilgrimage trade keeps it well fed. Most of the buildings may be crumbling, but new hotels are opening, a gold-jewelry bazaar is more bustling now than when I first visited it in the spring of 2003, and all the little stores that line the main avenues and the fetid winding alleys show a merchant class in control. Kazimiyya is a tried-and-true historical model in the Islamic world: bazaaris and clerics intermingling to produce a conservative, establishment-loving order. When I visited Moktada al-Sadr's Kazimiyya office, middle-aged and old men, not young firebrands, were everywhere. Once the violence of 2004-07 subsided, Kazimiyya's "middle class" temperament--the yearning for order amid the trash--spread, penetrating into poorer areas, like Sadr City, where the establishment has rarely done much for anyone. For now, older men are in; younger men are out.

And Maliki, at least for now, is the establishment. It is an odd fate for the man who certainly is, as one Iraqi friend put it, "the luckiest bastard in Iraq." Not that long ago, before the fall of Saddam, when Maliki's Dawa party had some intellectual coherence as a die-hard, virulently anti-American, Islamist movement, no one knew Nuri al-Maliki. Even after the fall of Saddam, few well-educated, politically savvy Iraqis, let alone the Americans isolated inside the Green Zone, had any idea who Maliki was. I know a gentleman who once worked with Maliki in exile in Iran and Syria. He was quite explicit: "He's not a nice man." Iraqi exiles in Syria and Iran--unlike those who went to the West--were always under siege. The Syrian and Iranian intelligence services are unpleasant organizations. Even with foreign friends, they can't resist painfully leveraging their home-turf advantage. One has to admire, and pity, Maliki for surviving so long in such company. It no doubt honed skills that now serve him well. Among them seems to be an earthy, suspicious pragmatism that has helped to make the Dawa party today an incomprehensible intellectual mess.

A man of fortitude and irascibility, Maliki displayed boldness in the difficult Basra campaign against the Shiite militias who'd turned the ugliest and dirtiest city in Iraq into a murderous hellhole. Maliki almost got himself killed, scaring the Americans and, it appears, even the Iranians, whose military and financial aid had been instrumental to the growth of the most powerful militias. The mullahs began to recalculate whether they wanted to be responsible for the death of an Iraqi Shiite prime minister. The militias pulled back.

The victory in Basra, combined with the Iraqi Army's improved performance in central Iraq, where the American surge and the Arab Sunni Awakening combined to deliver a death blow to the die-hard jihadists, guaranteed that Maliki would do well in the provincial elections. Since Basra, he has dominated Iraqi TV. And Maliki's relations with Najaf have been fair. His Dawa party, a militant mix of Islamic and Western ideas, has never been beloved among Najaf's mainstream divines, yet it always has earned a grudging respect owing to the intellectual prominence and bravery of its members (many of whom Saddam Hussein hunted and butchered). And Grand Ayatollah Sistani has always had a certain respect for secular Iraqi politicians, especially if they come from well-respected Shiite families--Ahmad Chalabi, for example, the leader of the Iraqi National Congress, has had continuing access to the ayatollah, often to the distress of American officials. The leader of Iraq's oldest Islamist party, Maliki is now seen, more or less, as a man driving secular, not religious, politics.

Post-Saddam Iraq is now post-party. The Shiite United Iraqi Alliance, which Chalabi engineered with Sistani's blessing to counter the Americans and Sunni Arab revanchism after the fall of Saddam, never had an ideological purpose other than to keep the Shia sufficiently united until they could organize themselves politically and militarily. With the Shiite victory in the Battle of Baghdad, the alliance became superfluous. Similarly, the SIIC now stands for little beyond some vague references to Islamic values. As Islamist political parties go, the SIIC is pathetic, and so is the Dawa.

And the Arab Sunnis are the same: None of their parties means much beyond the personalities of its leaders. The Sunni Islamic party, which has its roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, might develop a political platform. But beyond its hostility to alcohol, which isn't a winning position in much of Sunni Iraq, it's essentially a vehicle for Tariq al-Hashemi, the dynamic Iraqi vice president. This has always been a weakness of Arab politics. The inherent weakness of Iraq's Islamist parties and of so many prominent Islamist personalities has now played into the hands of the country's more secular politicians and those like Maliki who may (or may not) straddle the religious and secular realms.

But embracing a more secular establishment has its limits, especially in a country that is about to go bankrupt. Established political parties cannot deliver government jobs and desperately need reconstruction projects because the collapse in the price of oil has robbed the central government, and the soon to be empowered provincial councils, of the means to improve the lives of average Iraqis, who in the south live no better than Afghans. Without government ration cards, Iraqis would starve. It is by no means clear that the Iraqi government can even maintain the official and unofficial (that is, corrupt) patronage systems currently in place, which, along with ever-increasing expenditures for the armed forces and police and the state-funded pension system, currently chew up over two-thirds of the country's annual budget. Iraq needs to sell more than 2 million barrels of oil a day at $50 a barrel to stay afloat. In the next 12 months--the prologue to the national elections--Iraq has near zero chance of either significantly increasing production or seeing the necessary price. And it's a good guess that the Obama administration isn't going to come to the rescue with more money. The United States has given over $100 billion in aid to Iraq since 2003. And in Baghdad, where much of that money went, it's hard to see what good it did.

Iraq's debilitating corruption will skyrocket, as officials desperately seek to carve up an ever-shrinking pie. Politicians have been, to some extent, insulated from voter anger over corruption. But we could well see a breaking point. Maliki, who has done nothing to curb such theft even though he personally has avoided the taint of malversation, could well be shaken by the rapidly deteriorating economic situation. Any establishment party--that is anyone who gets too close to Maliki--could get battered.

The opposition parties are already abuzz with the possibilities of hurting, maybe even dethroning, Maliki in parliament. Maliki's authoritarian sentiments and his impulsive behavior don't help his case, though his enemies' plotting is undoubtedly tempered by the knowledge that no one really has any idea what to do about the economic freight train coming at them. As one thoughtful Iraqi politician put it to me, "We're all just screwed." Yet proximity to power means cash--the possibility that you, not your opponent, can milk the system. This is not a good basis for parliamentary government, but it may well be the one with the most resilience in Iraq. And although no one need worry about a military coup so long as the United States is in the country in force, corrupt civilian politicians and bureaucrats presiding over an uncorrupted army (and the new Iraqi officer corps so far seems above it all) is a tried-and-true recipe for military rule.

The United States could get blindsided by a rush of events. Diplomats and CIA officers serve only 12-month tours in Iraq, which means, after you subtract R&Rs, 10 months in country. Even the best officers in the world can't hope to get a grip on a normal country in 10 months' time, let alone a multiethnic, linguistically difficult, religiously complicated land recovering from totalitarianism and four years of bloodletting. Further encumbered by the labyrinthine security procedures of Green Zone life, American officials face a nearly impossible task to collect accurate, penetrating intelligence on what is really happening in the country.

What's worse, the Green Zone mentality has infected the Iraqi political elite. Most of them now live behind the Green Zone's walls. Many of them have their families with them. The Iraqi political elite has developed an unhealthy dependence upon their stronger American neighbors. It insulates politicians from the anger of the street--the heat and pressure that they need to feel to connect with those who are less fortunate. Iraqi politicians ought to live with the same dilapidated public services that most Baghdadis endure.

Solving this Green Zone problem even in the mid-term seems unlikely. Baghdad probably won't be truly safe, especially for prominent politicians, for at least a few more years. By then, the Baghdad political elite may have become too accustomed to living with guards and enjoying the delightful position of damning the Americans while using proximity to American power and wealth to insulate themselves and their families from a disgruntled citizenry. Elections may not be enough to push either incumbents or the newly elected political elite out of the hypocritical comforts of this life.

It's a reasonable guess that if the economic situation deteriorates rapidly before the next national elections, which must be held before January 2010, the Shiites who carry the banner of the poor will rise. That could well mean that the Sadrists will be back, and in much greater force than their current 9 percent of the vote. The older men will have failed, and younger, rasher men will again have their chance. The Sadrists are the most volatile element in Iraqi political life--the possible gateway for truly nefarious Iranian influence. We can only hope that American and Iraqi officials figure out some way of bringing them into the political system. Keeping them outside, amidst the garbage heaps, is not a recipe for a peaceful, prosperous, democratic Iraq.

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.