Muqtada Al-Sadir, the Shiite Cleric Grandmaster, is playing to win; whatever the expense. In the build-up to the game, the Sunnis got their act together and seized the opportunity to become the main winners of the first round. However, the Kurds entered the fight on one leg, lost sight of the bigger picture and intensified their internal power rivalry.
This has already proven costly for the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), and if they keep on as they started, the second round will be even dearer. Fortunately, it is not too late to minimise their losses or even end up winning future rounds. To do this, they need to take into account the complex power dynamics within not just the Shiite component of Iraq (Shiite House), but also the Shiite ‘Universe’ inside and outside Iraq.
The Shiite Universe vs Shiite House
Forming the Government in Baghdad follows a complex pathway from within the Shiite Universe. A winning parliamentary group within the Shiite block in Iraq will take the lead, however, the Cabinet and its overall direction are ultimately determined by a number of invisible institutions within the Shiites’ Universe. Collectively, they own the Shiite cause and have the final say. These institutions of Shiite Universe (ISU) include:
- Marjayia of Najaf, the other religious institutions (like Hawza), the intellectual elite and the community leaders at large.
- The political powers, such as the Sadrist Movement and Coordination Framework (CF), and the political elite.
- The political, security and intelligence institutions in Iran, their Supreme Leader, Hawza of Qum, the Lebanese Hizballah and others.
After centuries of Sunni rule, the Shiites assumed power in Iraq for the first time (after 2003). The ISU, who consider Iraq central to their existential struggle, have in effect assumed the country’s ownership. Despite their diversity of interests and internal rivalries, the ISU remained united in pursuing grand strategies and facing common threats. Their collective influence has proven more overwhelming than any number of seats that Iraqi political alliances could secure.
The Shiite Universe does not tolerate complacency. The ISU have no intention of allowing an internal political group (such as the Sadrists) to stray, forge alliances with non-Shiites and loosen their grip over power. They will not allow Sunni or Kurdish groups, potentially influenced or empowered by global or regional rivals (such as the US, Turkey or the Gulf Arabs), to peel Iraq away from Iran, back into the depth of the Sunni Universe.
Thus, if the ISU, particularly in Iran and Najaf, are currently acting as observers, may not remain so. They may even allow the Sadrists to form a government in partnership with the Sunnis and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). However, they have the time, the tools and the methods to make this government fail. The early indicators and on-going threats suggest that they are prepared to work systematically to undermine a Sadrist monopoly of power. They would slow down his government’s progress, prevent reform and facilitate its collapse, paving the way for a new coalition government or snap elections.
The Sadrists Approach
The Sadrists are aware of these factors. They know that the Shiite Universe considers the rise and unity among the Iraqi Sunnis a potential revival of Sunni dominance, and a possible existential threat to the Shiite rule. For different reasons, they consider Kurdish dominance over Baghdad a risk as well. Many Iraqi nationalists are suspicious of the sincerity of the Kurds, particularly the KDP, in giving up their dream of independence and working for a stronger, united, Iraq.
The Sadrists do not hide their mistrust of the Kurds’ agenda and would not wish to engage in a partnership that would force them to accepts Kurdish demands for what they consider to be their right. Fearing pressure from their electoral constituencies and populist rivals, they may hesitate to implement Article 140 of the Constitution, constrain the Shiite armed Popular Mobilisation Forces in the Disputed Territories, or facilitate payment of the KRI’s share of the budget.
In short, the Sadrists would not wish to go reckless against the ISU and risk their political future. Hence, they insist on attracting some of the leaders within the CF. This would give them the Shiite legitimacy and Shiite majority (in government) that they desperately need.
The Compromise Package
During negotiations between the Sadrists and CF, three packages have been debated.
- The CF package, where all of CF member parties, including Nouri Al-Maliki’s, join the Cabinet. They take six ministries, retain the power of veto over the choice of the Prime Minister (PM) and Al-Maliki to become one of two Vice Presidents. So far, this package has been rejected by the Sadrists.
- The Sadrist package consist of inviting all the CF member parties, except for Al-Maliki’s. They take four ministries without the power of veto over the choice of PM. This has been rejected so far by the CF.
- The compromise package that accepts Al-Maliki as a Vice President, offers four to six ministries to CF, with or without the power of veto over the choice of PM. This package may finally be mutually accepted.
There is a fourth option which is not been debated. It consists of forming a minority Shiite government in partnership with the non-Shiites, namely the KDP and the main Sunni groups. This option is critical for the Kurds because it is the only one that would allow the KDP to join the Sadrists on their own and deny the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) the presidency or share of ministries. Otherwise, the former three packages (1-3) will enable both the CF members and the PUK to enter the government with their own demands or expectations, which would not necessarily be in line with those of the KDP.
The KDP-Sadrist Partnership
Apparently, the Sadrists left it to the KDP to convince the PUK to join their coalition. During the KDP-PUK joint visit to Baghdad, the Sadrists expected the PUK to sign a pre-existing (Sadrist-KDP) declaration. Seemingly, the Sadrists (and Sunni partners), are concerned about the split between the two Kurdish parties, but they are willing to do what it takes to protect their interests.
It transpired that the Sadrits’ primary objective in the earlier partnership with the non-Shiites was to beat their CF rivals in securing the ‘largest faction’ status, and take the Shiite lead in forming the government. For this, they were dependent only on the Taqadum’s list (lead by M. Halbousi), therefore did not need the support of any other groups.
Now the Sadrists and Sunnis have secured their goals, they may begin to think about future moves and their political consequences. If the CF and PUK end up joining the government, the Sadrists may have to seek a compromise between the KDP and PUK; particularly over the presidency. If all fails and the KDP end up withdrawing from the partnership, the Sadrists may still move on as they would not be affected.
The Bigger Picture vs the Narrow Tunnel
It is clear that none of the coalition partners, led by the Sadrists, were focused on the bigger picture. However, Sunni unity will inevitably serve their common cause, and the Shiite groups might finally compromise between themselves to avoid diluting their rule. Ironically, they might decide that allowing a new reformist style of governing, led by a strong-minded Shiite, may turn Iraq into a better country with stronger institutions that the Shiites could be proud of. In contrast, the rivalry among the Kurds has so far been disastrous and, if this continues, can pose an existential threat to the KRI as an entity.
Previously, before and after elections, the KDP and PUK would exchange highly reassuring messages, emphasising unity both at home and in Baghdad. Unfortunately, the exact opposite has now happened. The two parties appear to have lost sight of the bigger picture and are marching down a narrow tunnel towards an even more damaging internal rivalry. Some fear this may ultimately lead to a total split in the Kurdistan Region’s administration. However, all is not lost and such scenarios are not inevitable. The KDP and PUK are accustomed to a complicated multi-level dynamic between them, often compartmentalising their various levels of engagements. Cooperating where their mutual interests are best served, whilst engaging in fierce rivalry elsewhere.
It is important to re-emphasise that the Iraqi elections have brought about a new opportunity for the KRI to transform Baghdad-Erbil relations. If they address the root-causes of the issues that lie in Baghdad, they may provide the solutions for it in the future. Crucially, the international partners are keen to facilitate negotiations and to emphasise their wish to support a united and more stable Kurdistan that can act as an effective partner in Baghdad.
Taken together, it is not too late for the KDP and PUK to calm this intense rivalry in Baghdad and engage in a serious and constructive negotiations for a win-win outcome. They should refocus on the bigger picture, reach a new strategic agreement and join efforts to achieve their common goals in Baghdad.