Iraq’s provincial councils: A new and dangerous battleground

Sunday 22/01/2017
Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in holy city of Najaf, last October

Baghdad - As Shia political rivalries play out on various Iraqi provincial councils, it is becoming clear that the country’s next pro­vincial elections will be among the most important — and perhaps the most perilous.
Iraq’s unpopular former prime minister Nuri al-Maliki's visit to the southern Iraqi provinces of May­san, Basra and Nasiriya in Decem­ber. Instead of being met by wel­coming committee, he was greeted by thousands of Iraqis demonstrat­ing against him. Most of the pro­testers were affiliated with or fol­lowers of another political leader, the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
In Basra, dozens of protesters, who chanted that Maliki was cor­rupt and a thief, tried to storm the hall where he was giving a speech, forcing security staff to cancel the event. Maliki threatened to launch a new version of the 2008 military operation called Sawat al-Fursan — Operation Knight’s Charge — against the protesters. This was a military operation to purge Basra of militias affiliated with Sadr’s move­ment.
This may have been an idle threat — the 2008 operation failed and a truce between the two Shia lead­ers was brokered by Iran. The real repercussions of the 2016 protests began to be played out some days later on Iraq’s latest and increasing­ly important political battleground: The country’s provincial councils.
Because of new legislation that gives provincial councils more power to make their own decisions on security, finance and politics, Iraq is moving towards a more decentralised governing system. Competition for power on these councils will increase.
Seats on the provincial coun­cils in southern Iraq, populated mainly by the country’s Shias, will be divided between two main Shia groups: The State of Law coalition, led by Maliki, of which Prime Min­ister Haider al-Abadi is also a mem­ber; and the forces led by younger clerics Ammar al-Hakim and Sadr. The pair represents a new Iraqi generation in political Islam.
Maliki’s response to the humili­ation he suffered in front of Sadr’s protesters in southern Iraq was to instruct the members of the Bagh­dad provincial council belonging to the State of Law coalition to ques­tion their governor, Ali al-Tamimi, a member of Sadr’s movement.
The governor was to be ques­tioned about financial and admin­istrative corruption, including about a security system to monitor vehicles in Baghdad to try to stop car bombs that was planned but never carried out. Money for the system was collected from the peo­ple of Baghdad.
“Calling Baghdad’s governor in for questioning at this time is clear­ly politically motivated,” council member Fadel al-Shuwaili, also a member of the Sadrist movement, told the news website Niqash. “Why did they choose this mo­ment? What have they been doing for the past few months?”
Shuwaili said the alliance be­tween the Sadrist members of the council and other parties is strong and the State of Law members will not be able to sack the gover­nor. The State of Law has 20 of 58 seats on the provincial council but would need more than 29 to be able to dismiss the governor outright.
“This questioning of officials is both legal and constitutional,” said Saad al-Matlabi, a senior member of Maliki’s party. “If the Sadrist movement trusts their governor, then why are they afraid of having him questioned?”
A few days later, a campaign against Maysan Governor Ali Dawai, a popular Sadr supporter, gathered pace.
State of Law members in Maysan accused Dawai of helping organ­ise the protests against Maliki and of preventing his supporters from planning their own meeting. Dawai denied the allegations and said he would file a lawsuit against those who accused him.
After 2003, Iraq’s Shia-dominat­ed parties worked together to en­sure their hold on political power but over recent years cracks have shown in the alliance. After 2013’s provincial elections, there were nine Shia-dominated councils formed in south Iraq, which has a majority Shia population.
After 2014’s federal elections, Maliki’s popularity waned and Sadr banded with Sunni parties to push Maliki out of the prime minister’s job. Maliki was replaced by Abadi — a more palatable member of Ma­liki’s party.
Over the past two years, the Shia parties have appeared more united, having been forced back together by the security crisis sparked by the Islamic State (ISIS).
However, as ISIS seems increas­ingly likely to be pushed out of Iraq soon, many analysts worry about what happens to the Shia alliance after the security crisis has, more or less, been resolved.
Up until now, most of the prob­lems between the two sides of the Shia alliance have been settled at the ballot box. That could have happened again in provincial elec­tions scheduled for April. However, as some areas are still held by ISIS and many thousands of people are displaced, as well as for other rea­sons, those elections have been postponed until 2018 to coincide with federal elections.
The other complicating factor is the presence of the Shia volun­teer militias. These were formed in 2014 to fight ISIS following the collapse of the Iraqi Army in the north. Battle-hardened fighters from those militias, which have played a crucial yet controversial role in fighting ISIS, will be return­ing to southern Iraq. The militias will most likely continue to exist in some form as the Iraqi government has made them a legitimate fight­ing force, separate from the stand­ing Iraqi Army.
The militias themselves do not present a united Shia front, either; there are many of them and they have different allegiances to vari­ous Shia leaders.
The worry is that, given conflicts between Maliki and Sadr cannot be resolved at the ballot box, they may draw the militias into the scrap and the political conflicts could then turn violent.
Also worth considering is that the militias have become im­mensely popular among ordinary Iraqi Shias. This gives them great political potential, which could be used to support the political affili­ations they already have or, possi­bly even in some cases, create their own new, independent political entities. They may challenge the traditional Shia political parties, many of whose members are seen by ordinary people as corrupt.
One thing is for sure: Iraq’s next set of provincial elections, now planned for 2018, will quite likely be some of the most important elections the country has had since 2003. They may also be among the most dangerous.