Iraq Shi’ite parties vie for power in provinces

NAJAF, Iraq  – After years of often bloody struggle, one party has risen to dominate much of Iraq’s Shi’ite Muslim south, but the party of the prime minister poses a stiff challenge in upcoming elections due to his rising popularity.

Slick, well-organized and well-funded, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (ISCI) controls most of the local councils in the oil-producing south, and appears set to cement its leading position among Iraq’s majority Shi’ites in January 31 provincial polls.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s prestige, however, has surged after he presided over a sharp drop in the sectarian bloodshed unleashed by the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, and that may yet help his Dawa Party loosen ISCI’s grip.

Iraq’s provincial councils pick powerful regional governors. A strong showing in the local vote may also provide crucial momentum for parliamentary polls due later this year.

“Shi’ite power will be affected (in the election),” said Mohammed Shayani, a resident of the Shi’ite holy city of Najaf, a key prize for the competing parties.

“Everyone wants the fire closer to his own dough,” Shayani added, referring to the patronage, influence and access to public resources that controlling provincial councils brings.


In Najaf, home to Iraq’s top Shi’ite clerics, or Marjaiya, ISCI election banners vastly outnumber those of its rivals, and the party’s television station — it is one of the few election contenders with such a luxury — ensures nationwide publicity.

Shi’ite religious rituals and observance have taken a strong hold in Iraq after years of repression by ousted Sunni leader Saddam Hussein, and religious rituals and sermons are broadcast incessantly on ISCI’s TV channel.

Piety and perceived association with the Marjaiya, headed by the hugely influential Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, could be a vote-winner, despite the clergy’s refusal to be linked to any faction and laws banning overtly religious campaign messages.

“This movement supports the path of the Marjaiya. That is one of its distinguishing features,” ISCI spokesman Zuhair al-Hakim said.

The sectarian split that resulted in a schism between Shi’ite and Sunni Islam occurred shortly after the death of the Prophet Mohammad, and Shi’ites are now an often persecuted minority in much of the Muslim world.

ISCI, which was founded in exile in Shi’ite Iran, and Maliki’s Dawa Party have worked closely since local and parliamentary elections in 2005 first swept Shi’ites to power.

While ISCI may be using religion as its trump card, Dawa’s campaign hinges largely on Iraq’s increasing security as years of sectarian slaughter and insurgency begin to subside.

“We stopped the roar of sectarianism which wanted to tear the country apart,” Maliki said this week in Najaf, where his is one of the few recognizable faces amid a riot of flyers largely featuring turbaned and bearded ISCI leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim.

“It is an epic triumph. Most definitely it will be written in history books in gold ink,” Maliki said at a campaign rally.

The Dawa Party leader’s popularity has grown after he launched a series of military crackdowns to wrest control of swathes of Iraq from insurgents and militias, including that of a former ally, anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

One of Dawa’s distinctive policies is that power must remain within the central government, a stance that critics claim is a sign of nascent authoritarianism, while ISCI is pushing for more regional powers in the areas where it holds sway.


There are other challengers to ISCI’s crown.

The party’s control of the south will never be complete without Basra, Iraq’s second largest city, where the Fadhila Party is in charge.

In addition, Sadr may also upset both ISCI and Dawa’s plans through his huge support among the Shi’ite poor, though his movement’s decision to contest the election indirectly through independent surrogates could be a mistake.

Independent candidates have entered the election race in force amid widespread accusations of corruption and sectarianism among Iraq’s incumbent mostly Islamist parties.

Sadrists say supporting independents will end single party domination of local councils. Along with the Hakims of ISCI, which has a powerful armed wing, the Sadr family is one of Iraq’s great Shi’ite religious dynasties, and rivalry between them has sometimes been bloody.

The Sadrists, whose Mehdi Army militia was weakened by Maliki’s crackdown last year, have less influence in Baghdad’s corridors of power than politically savvy ISCI, and have also steered clear of invoking religion.

“We are trying to end this practice,” Sadr spokesman Salah al-Ubaidi said, criticizing those who sought to win through “cash, security apparatus and their relationship with the Marjaiya.”

Shi’ite politicians – eyeing possible post-election alliances with their poll rivals — are quick to dismiss the prospects of intra-Shi’ite violence.

Some point to the huge number of candidates at more than 14,000 as a sign of strains. Others see signs of a healthy democracy after years of authoritarian rule under Saddam.

“There’s competition here … That’s freedom. There’s no tension at all. We’ve overcome far greater obstacles,” shoe salesman Mohened al-Abdili said.

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