December 1, 2004
by Rory McCarthy in Baghdad
Iraq's Shia parties have built a powerful political alliance uniting moderates with extremists and seem likely to dominate next month's general election. The coalition, formed in weeks of private negotiations, will put forward a joint list of candidates.
The process has been overseen by Iraq's most revered Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who has designated aides to unite the diverse Shia parties and to vet the many independent candidates standing with them.
Although he seeks no political role for himself, the influence of the Iranian-born ayatollah will ensure that the government has a deeply religious character and that Islam is a central tenet of the constitution that must be written next year.
Shia politicians are highly organised and intent on holding the elections on time, despite the violence that still grips Iraq and the pressure for a delay from their Sunni and Kurdish political rivals. If they succeed it will be the first time for centuries that the Shia have run the country, achieving what many have come to regard as their birthright.
"We are pushing the government and the political parties very hard so that we can have elections on time," said Jawad al-Maliki, a cultural historian who spent 25 years living in exile and is a senior figure in the large Islamic Dawa party.
"We feel very strongly that this crisis - the coalition forces, the corruption - is all happening because there are no elections in Iraq."
A small committee dominated by Ayatollah Sistani's aides is overseeing the joint list of candidates. On January 30 voters are due to elect 275 members of a national assembly, which will then choose a prime minister and cabinet. The assembly's prime task will be to write a constitution, to be ratified by a second general election at the end of the year.
The list is topped by the leaders of Islamic Dawa and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution, Ibrahim al-Jaafari and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim. The coalition also includes Ahmad Chalabi, the secular Shia exile who was once a Pentagon favourite to rule post-war Iraq, and representatives of Moqtada al-Sadr, the hardline Shia cleric who has led a series of uprisings against the US occupation.
It is the first sign of rapprochement between the exiles and the opponents of Saddam Hussein who stayed in Iraq.
Others involved include the Fadhila party, a moderate Islamist group opposed to the occupation.
"We want to take the Americans out of our country through negotiations, not by fighting," said its political leader, Nadeem al-Jabbery, a professor of politics at Baghdad University.
"If we don't have elections or an elected government then the Americans will stay and our problems will continue."
Half the list will be party members, the other half independents approved by Ayatollah Sistani. Yesterday an alliance of 38 small Shia parties voiced the first public dissatisfaction with Ayatollah Sistani's plans. Hussein al-Mousawi, spokesman for the Shia Political Council, said the key positions on the Shia list were going to extremist candidates who "believe in the rule of religious clerics".
Notably absent from the list, for now, is Ayad Allawi, the secular Shia who was appointed prime minister by the US in June this year. "The list is not finished yet. We have invited Allawi but we don't know if he will say yes or no," Mr Maliki said.
Some sources say that Ayatollah Sistani is reluctant to have Mr Allawi on the list and believes he is tainted by his close alliance with the US. Some Shia politicians are still uncomfortable with his membership of the Ba'ath party before he defected in the 1970s.
Other parties are forming their own, smaller lists of allied candidates. The two Kurdish parties, dominated by Masood Barzani of the Kurdistan Democratic party, will put in a joint list and may yet form an alliance with Mr Allawi.
Ghazi al-Yawar, the US-appointed president, has formed his own party of Sunni and Shia figures, including several current government ministers, and they will put forward their own list. The most likely candidates for prime minister remain Mr Allawi, Mr Jaafari of Islamic Dawa, and Adil Abdul-Mehdi, the number two in the Supreme Council.
Just two months from the elections it is difficult to identify a specific political programme followed by any of the Shia parties or their coalition. But given Ayatollah Sistani's role and the strong religious character of most of the parties involved, it is clear that Islam will have a key role.
Some will want to introduce an Islamic legal system. Under the temporary constitution supervised by the US occupation authorities earlier this year a compromise was reached: Islam was designated a source for legislation but not the sole source. It is likely that the more conservative Shias will want to change that. In the slum areas of eastern Baghdad where Moqtada al-Sadr holds sway there has already been a dramatic Islamisation of society, setting up new religious schools and requiring schoolgirls to cover their hair.
The role of clerics in the new government will also be strongly fought over.
Mr Jabbery, of the Fadhila party, represents a moderate viewpoint but still sees a potential political role for the clergy.
"In this country we would like the Islamic clerics to be outside the system, because they will work much better that way," he said. But he added: "They will keep their eye on the political movements and they can step in at the right time if something really goes wrong or makes them feel they should change things if there is a crisis."
Other parties are still vague about their agenda. The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution says: "Our programme will adhere to Islamic principles and will be based on Shia support."
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