Unconventional thinking about the Middle East.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Maliki Seems Confident

I just watched Nouri al-Maliki's interview with Al-Sumaria TV's Dalia al-Aqidi, which aired yesterday. Maliki seemed to be breaking some news: He kept referring to the 'National Coalition' to describe a soon-to-be-announced parliamentary bloc consisting of his own slate(89), the INA (70), the Kurdistani (43) and Tawafuq (6). Oddly though, I haven't heard anyone from those other slates describing an imminent coalition.

He's also betting on denying Allawi a number of seats by enacting a second round of de-Ba'athification, activating arrest warrants against some of Allawi's candidates (three in Diyala, one of whom is already in custody from before the election), and disqualifying candidates who had forged their educational certificates (...one needs the equivalent of high school--I think--to run for parliament). If this does go through, Allawi stands to lose 6-8 seats; the votes those disqualified candidates got would be nullified completely.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Iraqi Election Analysis: First Take

I wrote a piece on the PM prospects of Allawi and Maliki for the Long War Journal. You can read it here.

I'll have more to say later.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Election Day

I voted. It felt great, but the greatest thing about it was how normal it felt; elections have become a ho-hum, commonplace occurance. That's quite a feat for a country with Iraq's past and current challenges. The voting procedure itself was very well organized and speedy. The election site had seven polling stations, with about 400 registered voters allowed to vote there. Everyone's name was posted outside, along with information about what polling station they were supposed to use. Once inside, IDs were checked against name lists, and one had to sign next one's name to indicate that this name has voted. All in all, there are reasonable mechanisms in place to contain incidents of fraud. Most complaints are the fault of voters, who should have checked their registration status and followed the Electoral Commission's instructions that were amply circulated beforehand in the run-up to the ballot.

The Western media is hyperventilating about mortars and katyushas, but what I found interesting is that the Islamic State of Iraq failed to carry out its threats of disrupting the elections in any discernible fashion. This was a logistical failure for the jihadists; hardly any successful suicide bombers or sniper attacks near the polling stations. Lobbing mortars indiscriminately around Baghdad is BS intimidation. It certainly didn't deter voters.

The fact that the security authorities allowed vehicular traffic around 11 AM was both surprising and bold. It showed confidence in their security precautions, and the fact that there were no car bombs shows that they were right.

As for the initial results, what I'm hearing from my own sources and what I'm seeing on TV point out, to me at least, that my predictions a few days ago (scroll down) were reasonably accurate. Maliki on top, followed by Allawi, and Iraqi National Alliance a distant third. Maliki has beaten the Sadrists in their own bastions in Baghdad. That says a lot.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Al-Dhari: We are not calling for a boycott

I just appeared on Aljazeera (Arabic) versus Muthana Harith al-Dhari, of the Commission of Scholars of the Muslims, who spoke from Doha, Qatar. The Commission had been leading the call to boycott the elections, but I found it interesting that al-Dhari backtracked and denied that they are calling for a boycott. Which de facto means that they are calling for participation in the elections, a point that I clarified on the air. They must have sensed that Sunni participation and turnout will be huge, hence they didn't want to seem weak and irrelevant by standing by a boycott that Sunnis are ignoring. So at it stands, only the Islamic State of Iraq (Al-Qaeda) is calling for non-participation. This is a big development. So much for Western analysts who claim that the elections are marred by an alleged Sunni rejection.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Predictions

It is very difficult to make predictions about these elections. The unknowns are too many to factor in. A more prudent approach would be to keep my head down until all this passes over, but when have you known me to do that?

None of the following is scientific, but it is my foggy assessment, primarily based on Baghdad Province, of where people’s sentiments are. The limitations of such an assessment should be clear, so take it all with a grain of salt.

The top vote earner will be current PM Nouri al-Maliki, followed by Ayad Allawi’s slate. Maliki will get 10-15 more seats than Allawi. Maliki is still deriving his stature from his move against the Sadrists; Shia Iraqis of all classes remember him as someone who put an end to the Mahdi Army’s reign of terror and chaos. The Da’awa Party’s Islamist ideology—the vast majority of Maliki’s slate are Da’awa apparatchiks—does not matter to voters. If anything, they see Maliki, oddly, as an anti-Islamist. The charges of corruption, soft on Ba’athism, and general ineptitude did not stick to him, even though voters are cognizant that most executive positions throughout the state are filled with incompetent Da’awa guys.

Allawi has locked up the Sunni vote for the most part. Specifically, the Mutlag faction and Tareq al-Hashemi (current VP) have sold their constituency on the idea that their slate is the Sunnis’ sole protector. This Sunni coalescence around Allawi has strengthened him, leading to an after-effect of secular Shias lining up with him against the Islamists as the strongest candidate who can check their power. Well-financed campaigns also give an impression of strength, and that played a factor in brandishing Allawi as a strong comeback candidate.

The Iraqi National Alliance (Hakim, Ja’afari, Sadrists, Chalabi) will get less than half of Maliki’s seats. Even though they boast many prominent candidates, there seems to be a slide in their support. Their biggest vote earner is anti-Ba’athism, but it’s not enough to put them over the top. Their loss may be the biggest surprise of the elections. That said, what they are saying according to their own polling is that they will get at least twice as many votes as Maliki. The INA is counting on the Sadrists in Baghdad and Basra, but it seems to me that even Maliki is stronger in supposed Sadrist bastions like Sadr City.

Bolani’s slate looks strong on paper, but there has been an erosion of support over the past couple of weeks. Their principal Sunni voices, such as Ahmed Abu Risha and Ahmed al-Samara’i, are not running, and their bases of support gave way to Allawi’s momentum. Bolani has personally failed to be persuasive as a leader in his TV appearances, even though he has publicly put himself forward as a contender for the PM post. At one point he seemed as if he’ll get 22-25 seats, but now has dwindled to 10-12, maybe even less than that.

The Kurds will get around 62 seats, with 4/5 going to Barzani/Talabani and 1/5 going to the Goran slate and the Islamists.

The Commies, Mithal al-Alusi and Ayad Jamal-Eddin will each get less than a handful. Even though they matter in conversations and debates, they are seen as weak adversaries to the Islamists.

The Sunni Islamic Party is in serious trouble, walking away on a good day with about 5 seats.

What remains to be known is how many individual candidates in the provinces may make surprise wins based on their personal reputations, irrespective of slates. If 20-25 unknowns win on such a premise, then the parliament would be further divided even though they may have been candidates on big slates. They will see themselves as a group apart, having won on their own credentials.

The Iraqi voter is emerging from a trauma. The elements that would usually influence voters—corruption, reputations, efficiency, platforms, ideology—don’t sway the vote. Sunnis want someone who can save them from the fate of becoming second-class citizens, and Shias just want peace and quiet. Allawi’s slate satisfies the former, and Maliki reassures the latter. I don’t think either of these guys will become PM, but that’s a different post altogether. I think it will be very difficult to form a government around any of the characters now seen as potential PMs. The next PM needs to come from outside the political process: a male, a gray-haired gent, Shia, background as an administrator in the Iraqi state, secular, and supported by Najaf and the Kurds. This man will head a weak cabinet of technocrats, pending early elections at a time in the future when the political players resolve for a rematch. Day-to-day government will devolve unto local councils. There are only three or four persons who fit this bill.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Maliki Advisor to be Iraqi Ambassador in DC

Rumor has it that Sadiq al-Rikabi, Da'awa Party apparatchik and current advisor to PM Nouri al-Maliki will be the next Iraqi ambassador to Washington DC, replacing Samir al-Sumaida'i. This would fortify Maliki's position, given of course that he remains PM post-election.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Shahwani, The ‘Patriot’

Former Iraqi Intelligence chief—a favorite of the Central Intelligence Agency and certain Washington Post columnists—Muhammad Abdullah al-Shahwani is running as a candidate for parliament (Baghdad Province) on his own slate, called Al-Neshoor Party.

Back in August 2009, at the time when Shahwani was forcibly retired (…the guy is 72), the CIA media mill went into overdrive warning that Iraq would become a colony of Iran’s in five years, and that the only man who was holding down the fort in the face of an Iranian attack was Shahwani. He was sold as Iraq’s truest patriot. Many journalists and columnists, as they usually do, swallowed the Agency’s story without questioning any component parts of it. It was also revealed on this blog that it was the Agency itself which took the initiative, on its own volition, of dismantling the anti-Iran shop it had set up within the newly formed Iraqi Intelligence Service.

So let’s get back to Shahwani’s new gig. His party is running in the provinces of Baghdad, Nineveh, Salahuddin, Anbar, Diyala and Kirkuk. Which means Al-Neshoor is only making a bid for seats in provinces with predominant or significant Sunni Arab constituencies. Shahwani is fielding 59 candidates in these provinces, and by my count, only one is a Shia. So at a time when most slates are scrambling to portray themselves as inter-ethnic and cross-sectarian, Shahwani, Mr. ‘Patriot’, is selling himself as Mr. Sunni Arab.

Another interesting touch is that his campaign materials showcase the old Iraqi flag, the one with three stars on it. Yeah, Shahwani is definitely reconciled with the reality of a New Iraq. Or maybe not.

Is it a wonder that the Iraqi executive branch was worried about Shahwani’s loyalties?

So this is the candidate who is supposed to be Iraq’s savior, if David Ignatius’ sources are to be believed.

It is unfortunate that the American message in Iraq has been reduced to being pro-Ba’ath, and consequently is easily interpreted by America’s detractors as anti-Shia. The Kurds can’t be encouraged either by that. One can’t really build a partnership between the US and the New Iraq on such a premise. Who is responsible for this policy failure? Is anyone asking?

And what use is it to publicly bemoan Iran's alleged influence in Iraq without doing anything about it, and not only that, but dismantling the anti-Iran arm that was in place? Doesn't that serve to only expose the Agency's weakness?