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IRAQ: Seculars Gain as Religious Parties Lose Ground

Mohammed A. Salih

WASHINGTON, Mar 19 2010 (IPS) - Iraq’s largest secular bloc appears to be the biggest surprise of the parliamentary elections at a time when some of the most well-known religious groups and figures have sustained great losses, preliminary election results so far indicate.

Although many expected the country’s largest secular bloc known as al-Iraqiya to fare well, the group’s neck-in-neck showing with current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law (SOL) coalition has exceeded the expectations of many inside and outside Iraq.

Al-Iraqiya is headed by Ayad Allawi, a secular Shia, who was appointed by the U.S. to serve as the first post-war prime minister of Iraq. At some point during the vote-counting process, al-Iraqiya managed to become the leading bloc but is not a close second to SOL.

Al-Iraqiya has managed to lead in the Sunni Arab-dominated provinces of Nineveh, Anbar, Diyala, Salahaddin, and even the ethnically mixed Kirkuk province, the scene of a tense rivalry between Kurds, Arabs and Turkomans, according to preliminary results on the website of Iraq’s electoral commission.

Some believe Sunnis’ fear of domination by religious Shia parties has led them to opt for secular politics as a means of uniting with secular elements within the Shia community.

During the last two parliamentary elections in 2005, most Iraqis in the Arab areas of the country voted for religious parties. However, the trend started to shift following last year’s provincial elections when secular and less sectarian parties performed well.

“You have a change in the Sunni mood. In the past they wanted to elect a Sunni to lead them. But now they have changed that strategy and have decided to come together with a secular Shia. They have a mutual interest together,” said Mishkat al-Moumin, an Iraq expert at the Washington-based Middle East Institute.

Mishkat served as the minister of environment in Allawi’s government from 2004 to 2005.

Maliki’s SOL has won the votes in seven southern Shia provinces and the capital Baghdad, which has a mixed ethnic and sectarian population. The prime minister has in recent years tried to distance himself from parties known as strongly religious and sectarian and has attempted to cast himself as more of a nationalist figure.

Out of the nearly 90 percent of votes counted in the country so far, SOL is ahead with 2,259,853, while al-Iraqiya follows closely with 2,220,443, according to the data posted on the website of Iraq’s electoral commission. However, since seats will be distributed on a provincial basis, it is not clear how these votes will translate into seats.

The success of Allawi’s coalition is a welcome development to many in Washington who are hoping to see strong nationalist and secular trends emerge in Iraq to counter Iran’s influence.

If al-Iraqiya wins, the divided nature of Iraqi politics means it will have a hard time ahead putting together a governing coalition.

Under Iraq’s constitution, the winning bloc will be assigned by the country’s president to form the cabinet within 30 days and has to gain an absolute majority, more than half of the parliamentary seats, to set up the government.

Amid this ascendancy of secular al-Iraqiya, a coalition of mostly religious Shia parties known as the Iraqi National Alliance (INA) lags behind both Maliki and Allawi’s blocs. It has only managed to win three southern provinces and has performed poorly in the Sunni dominated areas.

Two previously strong Shia religious groups, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), led by Ammar al-Hakim, and the Fadhila Party, whose stronghold was mostly in and around the southern province of Basra have experienced major setbacks so far.

“Back in 2005, it was often an uphill struggle to argue that the influence of ISCI (then SCIRI) within the grand Shiite coalition known as the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) was generally exaggerated. Only after the local elections in January 2009 was the gradual weakening of ISCI acknowledged more widely,” wrote Reidar Visser, a well-known Iraq affairs analyst on his www.gulfanalysis.wordpress.com blog.

“Today, the partial results of the parliamentary elections indicate … a further marginalisation of ISCI within the reconstituted Shiite alliance,” he said.

According to Visser’s estimates, ISCI and Fadhila have gained only around 12 seats out of the nearly 67 seats that INA has secured so far.

Although SOL and INA have not done well in Sunni areas, al-Iraqiya appears to have made some significant forays into the power base of the other two groups in the south, especially in places like Basra and Babil. In the capital Baghdad, al-Iraqiya is a close second behind Maliki’s bloc.

The results appear to have taken even Malilki’s group by surprise. Amid widespread trading of accusations by many Iraqi parties regarding fraud in the overall election process, aides close to Maliki have accused Allawi’s al-Iraqiya of vote-rigging. Voicing suspicious over Allawi’s temporary lead, Ali al-Adib, a close aide to Maliki, told Agence France-Presse that Allawi’s lead in the elections required a “miracle”.

However, the latest results today have put Maliki’s bloc at the top again with a marginal difference of nearly 40,000 votes over Allawi’s group.

Although the elections were held on Mar. 7, the electoral commission has not set any date yet to declare the final results.

But, in the event of al-Iraqiya’s victory, the very make-up of the group may make it quite hard for the bloc to reach deals with other groups. The fact that the group has gained most of its votes in Sunni provinces presents certain problems in dealing with the Shia-dominated groups and Kurds.

Some of the leaders of the two major Shia-dominated coalitions of the SOL and INA were involved in devising and supporting the process of banning some key Sunni and al-Iraqiya figures from running in the elections. That could have created bad blood between elements in the al-Iraqiya and other Shia groups.

Relations between some elements within al-Iraqiya in Nineveh and the two major Kurdish parties of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the patriotic Union of Kurdistan are strained as well. The ethnic relations in places like Nineveh and Kirkuk are tense over territorial claims and power-sharing arrangements.

Despite that, leaders of various blocs have started talks to find areas of common ground. The process of government formation is expected to last for weeks or even months. After the second parliamentary elections in 2005, it took Iraqi factions around five months to create a government.

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