Iraq’s provincial councils: A new and dangerous battleground
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.