reflections

Considering a Possible Super Shia Bloc in Iraq

5 MINS READApr 20, 2010 | 11:08 GMT
IRAQ SAW PERHAPS THE SINGLE BIGGEST potential speed bump yet since the March 7 parliamentary elections as the winners attempt to form a coalition government. By most measures, the Shia blocs of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law and the sectarian Iraqi National Alliance (which came in second and third in the polls, respectively) appear to be moving toward the formation of a "super Shia" bloc. The Kurdish bloc has pledged to join such an alliance. Taken as a whole, this presents the serious threat that Iraq’s Sunnis may again be politically marginalized. A super Shia bloc could outmaneuver al-Iraqiya, the centrist, non-sectarian grouping led by former interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. Al-Iraqiya had broad appeal across ethno-sectarian lines at the polls and won the most seats in the election. It was widely supported by the Sunnis, and so its success would bring them to the center of the political process, while its marginalization would risk another political disenfranchisement. In response to the prospects of the super Shia bloc, on Monday al-Iraqiya’s spokeswoman reportedly threatened to withdraw from "the entire political process, including withdrawal from the next Iraqi parliament, if some parliamentary blocs insist on concluding an alliance between them in an attempt to exclude or marginalize [al-Iraqiya]." This may simply be political maneuvering, and al-Iraqiya is certainly not averse to a brinksmanship strategy if that is what it takes to ensure that it is brought into the ruling coalition. Parliamentary coalition building is often a particularly messy process, even in countries with a long history of it. In Baghdad, this is in many ways the first time it has ever been attempted; the Sunnis largely boycotted the 2005 polls. This led to their disenfranchisement and intensified the insurgency, but dramatically simplified the formation of a coalition government because an entire swath of the population was effectively uninvolved. Al-Iraqiya could get shut out of the government. It could voluntarily choose to go into opposition. There is no shortage of potential scenarios in parliamentary coalition building, and the Iraqi case this year is particularly intricate. Iraq is moving from comparative post-election quietude into a phase of decisive maneuvering. The coalition-building process is the dynamic of central importance in Iraq right now. There is still room for all sides to maneuver, but as Iraq inches closer to a firm coalition, there will necessarily be winners and losers. There is little to suggest that the State of Law and Iraqi National Alliance blocs will not be able to agree upon the formation of a super Shia bloc, thus creating a sectarian Shia group rather than the more diverse al-Iraqiya, the single most powerful political entity in the country. With the Kurds' imperative being to side with the winner, and having already pledged to join the super Shia bloc, al-Iraqiya getting shut out of the ruling coalition is a very real possibility. And this strikes at the heart of the fate of Iraq. The Sunnis appeared to have made enormous political progress at the polls in March, compared to 2005. Now they face potentially being shut out of Iraqi politics yet again. The Sunnis in Iraq are fractious, and the downfall of al-Iraqiya would not necessarily lead to widespread violence. But the re-emergence of some levels of violence are certainly not outside the realm of possibility, even following the reported deaths of top al Qaeda leaders Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayub al-Masri in Iraq. But Iraq’s fate is not the only issue in question. A super Shia bloc would provide Iran with substantial influence within the central government of Iraq — something the Turks, Saudis and other Arabs are aggressively attempting to counterbalance, namely by supporting al-Iraqiya. And they are not likely to take any potential marginalization of al-Iraqiya lightly either. After years of violence, most everyone in the region wants a more stable Iraq. But what sacrifices each player in the region is willing to make to facilitate Iraqi stability is another question entirely. Meanwhile, the formation of the government and the durability of the fragile balance of power and hard-won stability in the country is of central importance for the looming U.S. drawdown of all combat troops, which would see current troop levels halved to 50,000 by the end of August. And even after that drawdown, the only thing that has counterbalanced Persian power in the region since 2003 has been the U.S. military. How Tehran will be managed, especially with what is sure to be a strong Shia presence in any governing coalition in Baghdad, remains an open question. And so Iraq is moving from comparative post-election quietude into a phase of decisive maneuvering within the country and beyond that will define the existence of Iraq — and the wider region — for years to come.

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