In a review of recent political news from Iraq posted Saturday morning, Prof. Juan Cole of the Univ. of Michigan passes on AP's Hamza Hendawi's scoop that "Aides around Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani . . . are broadly hinting that after the December 15 elections, he may begin a Gandhi-like campaign to demand a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq."  --  Cole comments:  "If Sistani gives The Fatwa for a U.S. withdrawal, the Bush administration will simply have to acquiesce. . . . [T]he U.S. simply cannot keep troops in Iraq if the Shiites also begin vehemently demanding their departure."  --  Prof. Cole also comments at length on the formation of political parties in Iraq in anticipation of the Dec. 15 elections....

By Juan Cole

** Party Coalitions Are Finalized **

Informed Comment
October 29, 2005

The intrepid Hamza Hendawi of AP gets the scoop: Aides around Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the chief spiritual leader of Iraqi Shiites, are broadly hinting that after the December 15 elections, he may begin a Gandhi-like campaign to demand a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. A lot of sentiments are attributed to Sistani that he later has to deny, so we should be cautious about whether the aides have their own axe to grind. But if this report is true, it would suggest that Sistani is confident that the Iraqi police and military are strong enough to protect him and the other members of the current Iraqi political class, and that the Americans are not needed.

If Sistani gives The Fatwa for a U.S. withdrawal, the Bush administration will simply have to acquiesce. The situation would be similar to what happened in the Philippines in 1991, when the Philippines senate declined to authorize the extension of the treaty that permitted U.S. naval bases in that country. Given the ongoing Sunni Arab guerrilla movement (which killed another 5 US GI's in the past couple of days), the U.S. simply cannot keep troops in Iraq if the Shiites also begin vehemently demanding their departure. Any attempt by Bush and Rumsfeld to remain in Iraq in defiance of Sistani would certainly radicalize the Iraqi population and risk pushing it toward anti-American Muslim extremism both on the Shiite and the Sunni Arab fronts. As Hendawi notes, most close observers of Iraq, such as Vali Nasr and Ahmad Hashem (who has experience on the ground as U.S. military officer) believe that any such move by Sistani, should it succeed, risks throwing Iraq into substantial sectarian violence.

A majority of Americans now say that getting the troops out of Iraq as soon as possible is more important than ensuring that the country is a stable democracy.

Sistani seems to be encouraging a new political coalition that is multi-ethnic. Al-Zaman says that some independent Shiite notables close to Sistani have formed the Independent Iraqi Capabilities Bloc. It groups many of the independents who were in the (Shiite religious) United Iraqi Alliance in the January 30 elections, but altogether includes 120 Shiites, Sunni Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen. (If this group was not offered many seats by the UIA this time, it might explain both why it bolted and why Sistani is said not to be as enthusiastic about the UIA this time around.) Husain Shahristani, a former nuclear scientist now close to Sistani, was originally involved in this project but ended up staying in the United Iraqi Alliance (see the NYT) [revised 10/27/05]. Among Western news reports only the Financial Times even alludes to this new list. Unless Sistani directly endorses the new list, something his aides said Friday would not happen, I don't expect it to do very well, unfortunately.

On Friday, the young nationalist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr called for calm after a major engagement between his Mahdi Army and Sunni Arab guerrillas, who killed 25 of the latter. Sadr called for an investigation and forbade individuals from taking the initiative. Also on the sectarian civil war front, the Washington Post reported Saturday that a family of 10 Shiites was found dead earlier this week in Qamishli in Babil province, killed by Sunni Arab guerrillas. Babil is a mixed province where Saddam stole land from Shiites and settled Sunni Arabs on it.

Al-Zaman/ Deutsche Press Agentur are reporting further breakaways from the United Iraqi Alliance. The UIA groups the Dawa Party, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the Virtue Party, the Sadrists of Muqtada al-Sadr, and the Islamic Action Party based in Karbala. Aside from the last, these are the big, central Shiite religious parties, and the UIA is likely to have a plurality or even majority in the new parliament elected on Dec. 15, unless there is a voter revolt of some sort.

It is probably therefore not very important that there were some last minute defections from the UIA.

Ahmad Chalabi in the end decided to run his Iraqi National Congress as an independent list. The INC mainly represents the secular-leaning expatriate Shiite business class and seems unlikely to do well in open elections inside Iraq. It has been joined by Sharif Ali bin al-Husain, a Sunni Hashimite who has in the past put himself forward as candidate for king of Iraq (not a likely prospect). Kirk Semple of the New York Times lists some other INC candidates, including "Iraq's justice minister, Abdul Hussein Shandal . . . Other members are Salama al-Khafaji, an independent Shiite who also defected from the Shiite coalition." Khafaji, a Shiite traditionalist who is uncomfortable with the idea of a clerically dominated state, has narrowly escaped assassination; as it is, her 17-year-old son was killed in an ambush. It would be interesting to know more about why she split with the UIA and joined Chalabi. Her advocacy for women's issues may have played a role.

Chalabi should never be underestimated, and he is perfectly capable of getting up some vote-buying scheme. But if the election is free and fair, I'd be just stunned if the INC got many seats in parliament.

Semple also reports that Abdul Karim al-Muhammadawi, the Marsh Arab leader from Amara, is running as an independent. Al-Zaman thought he would join Chalabi's list, but that possibility appears to have fallen through. Since most of the Marsh Arabs appear to have gone over to Muqtada al-Sadr since the fall of Saddam, I don't expect al-Muhammadawi to do well on his own, though he might get a seat for himself in parliament.

Hamza Hendawi reports that the secular "Iraqi Nationalism" list of Iyad Allawi groups the Iraqi Communist Party, secular Sunni figures such as Ghazi al-Yawir and Adnan Pachachi, and of course the ex-Baathist Shiites that Allawi has long attempted to organize. Allawi's list only received 14 percent of the vote in the last elections. The communists and al-Yawir could bring him an extra 4 seats or so, but it is also possible that his list will not poll as well this time. He no longer has the advantages of incumbency. He has been critical of Sistani. And several members of his cabinet have been charged with massive embezzlement. Hendawi reports that Allawi is angling to form a government with the Kurds so as to outmaneuver the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance. But I doubt Allawi's list will get more than 40 seats, and the Kurds are unlikely to do much better than 55. Even if they get some of the 40 seats that will be redistributed after the election by some complex formula, I don't see how they can get to the 138 needed to form a government. Only if all three -- Allawi's list, the Kurdistan Alliance, and the Sunni coalition -- unite could they form a government that left out the United Iraqi Alliance, assuming it does not end up with 138 itself. Such a strange-bedfellows government would be highly unstable and I doubt it would last. It is going to be hard to exclude the religious Shiite parties.

Hazem Shaalan, the former defense minister accused massive fraud committed while in office in 2004 and early 2005, maintained that he was the victim of an attempted assassination in his London flat, but which failed, according to al-Sharq al-Awsat. Shaalan, however, is a notorious liar, and has also charged that there are one million Iranian Shiites surreptitiously in Iraq and that Iran is allowing al-Qaeda operatives to freely roam its territory. Both charges are so laughable that you have to wonder whether Shaalan isn't a good friend of and source of information for Irving Lewis Libby.

The Turks went ballistic when Bush received Massoud Barzani (Mesut in Turkish) at the White House and called him "President Barzani." They wanted to know what Bush thought Barzani was president of. The Turks are afraid of an independent Kurdistan state in northern Iraq, which might create secessionist sentiments in Turkish Kurds. Bush at least did tell Barzani that Iraq had to remain a united country. Secretary of State Condi Rice pressed Barzani on behalf of the Turks to see that the PKK (a Marxist Kurdish revolutionary party in eastern Turkey) not be allowed to operate freely from or take refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan. The Turks were very upset when the U.S. and the Iraqi government attacked the Turkmen city of Tal Afar in August on the grounds that terrorists operated from it, but seemed unconcerned about what the Turks consider Kurdish terrorists of the PKK establishing themselves in the same region.