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    Middle East
     Jan 12, 2010
Maliki grasping at Shi'ite straws
By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS - An alarmed Iraqi Sunni community has cried foul play following last week's mass arrests by Iraqi security forces within Sunni districts of the country. Hundreds of young people were arrested in Baghdad, Tikrit, Anbar and Mosul, all accused of illegal membership in the 170,000-man Awakening Councils.

These councils were originally founded by the former United States administration to help combat al-Qaeda. They have since snowballed to become a nightmare for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who claims that once through with al-Qaeda, they will target their guns at Shi'ites. Meanwhile, the Judicial Council that 

is run by the Interior Ministry passed 77 death sentences in Baghdad last week, all targeting men accused of terrorism, mostly from the Sunni community.

The clampdown on Sunnis coincides with the release of Qais Khazali, the popular Shi'ite cleric who has been in jail since March 2007. A former associate of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, Khazali was expelled from the Mahdi Army in 2004 and many now believe that he will be used by Maliki in the March elections to counterbalance the Sadrist bloc.

Muqtada's team is running for parliament in March in a coalition that that does not include Maliki. His coalition, the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), was founded last August, and includes influential Shi'ite parties like the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC), the Badr Brigade, the Sadrists, ex-prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari and the Fadila Party.

Originally, Maliki had scoffed at the INA, refusing to join them, instead choosing to run independently in a 40-party coalition headed by him that includes almost all of his ministers, including the powerful Oil Minister Hussein al-Shahristani, and a handful of Sunni tribal leaders from the Abu Risheh clan. Maliki's team, the State of Law Alliance (SoL), had operated on an independent platform during the provincial elections in January 2009, emerging victorious, thanks to a secular platform that appealed to both Sunnis and Shi'ites.

The prime minister perhaps thought he no longer needed Iran-backed politicians who were only popular within the Shi'ite community, wanting to come across as a seasoned statesman who appealed to all Iraqis, regardless of sect or regional affiliation. Three terrorist attacks in August, October and December, however, whipped up a death toll of nearly 400 people - making Maliki look incompetent before his own constituency, shedding serious doubt on whether he would be able to pull through on his own in March.

Last week, after meeting the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Najaf, Maliki said that an understanding has been reached between his SoL and the INA, claiming that they will merge ahead of the elections. The INA threw dust in his eyes three days later, saying that no such alliance was in the making. Merging the two groups, it added, was too late, reminding that it had repeatedly tried, and failed, to get the prime minister to join the INA.

Additionally, they noted, such a merger was no longer constitutionally possible, given that it passed the given deadline for any election list modifications. Qasim Dawoud, a member of parliament and ranking member in the INA, expressed surprise at Maliki's statement, claiming that it was "baseless".

The INA position had Iran's fingerprints all over it, signaling how angry Tehran is with the prime minister. Maliki, after all, had been brought to power thanks to the support of Shi'ite allies like the Sadrists and SIIC, back in 2006. The Sadrists, popular at a grassroots level in the slums of Baghdad, had helped legitimize the prime minister four years ago, when he was still a political nobody, marketing him in the eyes of young people, and the urban poor.

These young Shi'ites, who detested the United States occupation, were asked to believe in Maliki, whom they claimed, was not a creation of the US. In exchange for Sadrist support, Maliki turned a blind eye to the state-within-the state they had created in Sadr City, rewarding them with strategic cabinet posts like Health, Education and Commerce. The 30-man Sadrist bloc in parliament firmly stood by the prime minister as he faced a barrage of criticism from Kurdish and Sunni opponents, helping bolster his cabinet during the difficult civil war that took place in 2006-2007.

The SIIC did the same within the upper echelons of the business community in the Shi'ite community, also helping shelter Maliki from a vote of confidence within parliament. To think that the prime minister would now turn his back on both - seeing them as a political embarrassment - was too much to digest. By the time Maliki realized that he could not win without support of INA members last week, it was already too late for rapprochement.

Maliki tried to salvage what he could of his deteriorating position, traveling to Najaf to meet with the grand ayatollah, hoping that by showing up at Sistani's side, he could help polish his own image in the eyes of ordinary Shi'ites. He unleashed an iron fist against Sunni youth - regardless of whether they were in fact involved in any terrorist operations - an attempt to silence Shi'ite fears of the Awakening Councils, but apparently, that too did not pay off.

He is now preparing to court the recently released Qais Khazali, who is popular at a grassroots level within the Shi'ite community. If that also fails, he will try to use Khazali in reverse, perhaps luring him into the SoL so that he can challenge the towering influence of the Sadrists. For his part, Muqtada has been watching developments in relative silence, only saying that if the INA were to merge with the SoL, Maliki would need to issue a general amnesty, setting hundreds from the Sadrist bloc free who are in jail for having taken up arms against the Americans, over the past four years.

Other members of the INA are no longer enthusiastic about joining hands with the SoL. The Maliki coalition is a losing horse, after all. Thanks to consecutive bombings, it has lost support of the Iraqi street, and due to Maliki's earlier election strategy, tarnished its relationship with Iran.

For obvious reasons, the Sunnis, who supported the SoL in the provincial elections one year ago, are also not going to be voting for Maliki this time because of repeated clampdowns on the Awakening Council and former Ba'athists.

Although Maliki and heavyweights like Hussein Shahristani might win independently in March, the State of Law Alliance - without Iran - is doomed to fail. Observers of the Iraqi scene should start bracing themselves for a landslide victory of the INA, meaning that heavyweights like Ammar al-Hakim, Jaafari and Muqtada will be back in the seat of power until 2014 - only this time without Maliki as premier.

Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria.

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