Monday, July 09, 2007

This Could Get Interesting...Or Not

It is beginning to look as if Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki may be squeezing Moqtada al-Sadr too hard. Sadr's representatives accuse Maliki of allying closely with SIIC (Sadr's main Shiite rival), and turning a blind eye toward recent coalition attacks on Sadr's cadres. In addition to increased battles between US troops and Sadr's Mahdi Army militia, violence in the Shiite South between Mahdi forces and rival militias (like SIIC's Badr Corp militia) and Iraqi government forces has also been heating up. There might have been some redundancy in the latter part of the previous sentence, though, as in many cases the Iraqi government forces clashing with Mahdi militia members are actually SIIC's Badr Corp militia wearing government-provided uniforms. In Iraq, some militias are more equal than others.

This type of concerted pressure could actually lead Sadr to bolt from the Shiite political coalition organized under the UIA umbrella as envisioned by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani (an umbrella shared with rivals SIIC - not to mention Maliki's Dawa Party, amongst others). While Sadr's deference to Sistani and wariness about political prospects outside the UIA (where he would be relying on Sunni parties, and the likes of Iyad Allawi) have proven potent, there are limits. Maliki and his SIIC allies seem intent on testing those limits.

Worth considering, though, is that this tense rhetoric, coupled with threats of defection, have marked Sadr's rocky relations with the UIA since its inception - while never leading to an actual severing of ties. Such public displays have been used as levers to secure Sadr's position and access to spoils in the past. This most recent episode could certainly fit that pattern.

In possibly related news, certain Sunni parties in the Iraqi parliament (some of them, at least nominally included in the current ruling government coalition) have indicated that they will be calling for a no-confidence vote regarding Maliki to be held on July 15th. That vote should prove telling about the depths of the rift between Sadr and Maliki, and which way Sadr intends to break. As Juan Cole notes, the results of such a vote remain in doubt:

There are three Sunni Arab parties in the 275-member parliament. The largest, with 44 seats, is the Iraqi Accord Front. The National Dialogue Front of Salih al-Mutlak has 11 seats. The small Liberation and Reconciliation Party has 3 seats (its founder, Mishaan al-Jibouri has had to flee the country because a warrant was issued for his arrest last fall). According to the Iraqi constitution, any 50 members of parliament can call a vote of no confidence, so the Sunni Arab parties can certainly initiate the process.

They would need 138 seats to unseat al-Maliki, however, and it is not clear that they would have them. The 58 Kurdish deputies will vote for al-Maliki, and he would only need 80 Shiite votes to win the vote. Even with the defection from his alliance of 32 Sadrist MPs and 15 from the Islamic Virtue Party (Fadhila), al-Maliki probably still has 80 Shiite MPs behind him (before the defections he had about 130 in his United Iraqi Alliance, so the defections should have left him with 88). It is also not clear that the Sadrist and Islamic Virtue MPs will actually vote with Sunni fundamentalist parties to unseat a Shiite prime minister.

Even assuming that Sadr and Fadhilla throw in with the Sunnis, and that the anti-Maliki coalition can muster the votes to oust the prime minister, it is unclear what type of ruling coalition could or would emerge in his government's wake. As Cole elucidates above, there is no obvious bloc that could cobble together enough seats to form a stable government. In fact, life after Maliki could come to resemble life under Maliki quite a bit. The Kurds and the non-Sadrist Shiite parties comprising the UIA (SIIC and Dawa chief among them) would once again likely renew their symbiotic partnership. Which would leave this group scrounging for the seats necessary to form a government - albeit one with only a whisker thin majority.

Anyone expecting this new regime - with an even smaller mandate than the current Maliki government - to make progress on thorny political issues that are so divisive that they even split coalition partners from the same sect, will likely be gravely disappointed. Which only highlights, once again, the futility of our position in Iraq - when the prospects for success are dependent on political reconciliation to be forged from a political process that shows no capacity to yield the desired results, but rather merely reflects the underlying divisions in need of reconciling in the first place.

Further, it would not be entirely inconceivable for Sadr to remain loosely allied with the UIA after Maliki falls, coming back into the fold as the white knight - but demanding certain guarantees and positions as his bounty. Sistani will likely be pushing the respective Shiite parties in this direction - fearing the effects that prolonged and profound divisions in the Shiite ranks could have on the prospects for future Shiite dominated political rule.

Which would only do more to flesh out the resemblance between the eventual new boss and his predecessor. In turn, even his predecessor's predecessor.

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