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Feb 25th, 2010

Anti-American Bloc Gains Ahead of Iraq Vote

Next Iraqi prime minister could be openly hostile to U.S. and friendly toward Iran

Image: Shiite demonstrators in Baghdad
Thousands of demonstrators march during a rally at Firdous Square in Baghdad, Friday, Nov. 21, 2008. Followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who called America “an enemy of Islam,” marched against a pact letting U.S. forces stay in Iraq until 2011 and toppled an effigy of President George W. Bush where U.S. troops once tore down a statue of Saddam Hussein. (Photo: Ali al-Saadi / AFP — Getty Images)

February 24, 2010

BAGHDAD — The political movement of Iraq’s best-known anti-American cleric has emerged as a major contender in next month’s national elections, raising the possibility that the next prime minister could be openly hostile to the U.S. and friendly toward Iran.

A prime minister loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr might push the U.S. military to speed up its withdrawal timetable and pose a threat to future military and economic cooperation between the United States and Iraq.

Such a choice also could undermine efforts to reconcile Iraq’s religious groups, with memories still fresh of brutal sectarian warfare between al-Sadr’s Shiite militiamen and Sunni extremists.

The United States looks to the March 7 election as a key step to cement Iraq’s infant democracy.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s alliance, backed by the powers of incumbency, has been widely viewed as the bloc that would emerge with the largest number of seats.

Coalition facing tough challenge

But al-Maliki’s standing has been hurt by a series of horrific bombings in central Baghdad that exposed the inadequacies of Iraq’s security forces. The lack of tangible improvement in basic services and allegations of corruption have further hurt his chances.

Al-Maliki’s coalition is facing a tough challenge from a rival Shiite bloc, the religiously oriented Iraqi National Alliance. The main partners in this bloc are the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, or SIIC [formerly the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI], and the Sadrists.

If the Iraqi National Alliance emerges as the largest bloc in the 325-seat parliament — and if the Sadrists win more seats than SIIC — that would likely place the fiery cleric in a strong position to pick the next prime minister.

SIIC officials are quietly acknowledging that the Sadrists are likely to emerge as the biggest winner in the bloc, thus robbing their own party of the chance to secure the prime minister’s job.

They say Iran, which wields a great deal of influence within Iraq’s Shiite establishment, is throwing its weight behind the Sadrists in the hope that they would do its bidding in a new government.

A top SIIC leader, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic, said the party would try to prevent the Sadrists from gaining control by securing the support of smaller groups within the coalition.

Officials at al-Maliki’s Shiite-led “State of Law” coalition also have acknowledged the Sadrists will fare well in the vote.

Salah al-Obeidi, al-Sadr’s chief spokesman, told The Associated Press that party projections indicate the National Alliance would win 70 to 80 seats in the new legislature. Of these, he said, the Sadrists would have at least 35 seats.

While the forecast by the Sadrists could prove to be optimistic — there are no reliable polls — the movement has rebounded over the past year.

Grass-roots social welfare network

Al-Sadr’s own political fortunes have been cyclical since he emerged as a power broker at the height of Iraq’s violence. He maintained a low profile after leaving for Iran in 2007 as the U.S. began its buildup of troops, who cracked down on his militia and Sunni insurgents. But he recently has appeared to be positioning himself as a politician, replacing his militia with a grass-roots social welfare network.

His movement made a respectable showing in last year’s provincial elections and has seen support grow in Baghdad and across the southern Shiite heartland. Much of its rise is tied to its social, health and education services and tireless calls for the withdrawal of the Americans, a stand that resonates with mostly poor Shiites who see the U.S. presence as the root of the country’s problems.

A Sadrist prime minister, or one under the movement’s influence, would likely call for a faster withdrawal of U.S. forces, who are currently scheduled to be gone by the end of next year.

A Sadrist-led administration also could jeopardize progress toward national reconciliation after years of killings and kidnappings, mostly at the hands of al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia — which battled U.S. troops for years in Baghdad’s Shiite slums and in cities across the south.

It also would deal a blow to the U.S. aim of creating a model Western-style democracy in the region, as the Sadrists would likely favor a strict interpretation of Islamic teachings. Al-Sadr himself believes in the right to rule by the most learned cleric, the concept that underpins the rule of the clergy in neighboring Iran.

Unlikely that cleric would take job

Al-Sadr’s supporters haven’t commented on whether they have a specific candidate for the prime minister’s post — and it’s highly unlikely that the fiery cleric would himself take the job himself. Al-Sadr, who has been studying in Iran for the last two years, prefers to speak from the pulpit and is known to be seeking an elevated position in the Shiite religious hierarchy.

But al-Sadr, whose followers fought U.S. forces for years before being routed in a series of offensives, would be able to handpick a candidate for the job or at least play kingmaker if his supporters win enough seats in the new parliament.

Sami al-Askari, a close al-Maliki aide, questioned the Sadrists’ ability to forge a postelection alliance with the country’s main Kurdish bloc — a necessity in Iraq’s fractured political scene since no single bloc is expected to win enough votes to claim an outright majority.

Iraq’s Kurdish and Sunni minorities are expected to emerge with enough seats to allow them to be key partners in a Shiite-led government. In a similar position is a secular alliance led by former prime minister Ayad Allawi.

Another al-Maliki aide, Ali al-Adeeb, said the Sadrists would probably adopt a candidate from outside their ranks to ensure the support of other blocs. The two aides said an election victory for the SIIC-Sadrist alliance was far from guaranteed.

One-time Pentagon favorite Ahmad Chalabi and former prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari were among names mentioned by officials from SIIC and within the ranks of the Sadrists.

Many Sunnis particularly loathe Chalabi for what they see as his campaign to weaken them through his leadership of a panel that has weeded out thousands from government and armed forces jobs for their alleged ties to Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Al-Jaafari’s tenure as prime minister in 2005 and 2006 saw some of Iraq’s worst sectarian violence, leading some to charge that he turned a blind eye to the slaughter of Sunnis.

Both men are known to be close to Iran.


New development

Shiite Cleric Faces Warrant over 2003 Murder

By Qassim Abdul-Zahra

March 2, 2010

BAGHDAD – In a surprise move ahead of weekend elections, Iraq’s highest judicial body has renewed an arrest warrant against an anti-U.S. Shiite leader for the murder of a moderate cleric nearly seven years ago, a senior government official and a spokesman for the leader said Tuesday.

Muqtada al-Sadr, who heads one of the major Shiite parties competing against Iraq’s Shiite prime minister, is believed to have been living in neighboring Iran for the past two years. He is not thought to be planning to return to Iraq any time soon, although a rumor has been circulating among supporters that he wanted to make an appearance in Iraq before Sunday’s parliamentary vote.

U.S. officials blamed al-Sadr for the April 10, 2003, assassination of Shiite cleric Majid al-Khoie, who was slain after returning to the holy city of Najaf south of Baghdad in hopes of winning support for the Americans from Shiite clergy.

A warrant was issued for al-Sadr in the al-Khoie slaying by Iraqi authorities in 2004, but he was never arrested. Instead, the warrant was quietly shelved as part of the cease-fire deals the Americans accepted under pressure from Shiite clerics and politicians.

They feared a public backlash if foreign occupiers dealt harshly with the scion of one of the Shiites’ most prestigious families.

But The Associated Press has obtained a new arrest warrant dated Feb. 7 that lists al-Sadr along with 13 other men as wanted in the killing of al-Khoie. …

Similar moves against al-Sadr in the past have unleashed protests by his followers across much of Iraq.

His militia, the Mahdi Army, fought U.S. forces in Baghdad and across the Shiite south in at least two full-scale rebellions since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. But his fighters were routed in a series of U.S.-Iraqi offensives in 2008, forcing al-Sadr to declare a cease-fire, and the issuance of the warrant was unlikely to spark a violent backlash.

His movement, which has 29 seats in the outgoing legislature and performed respectably in provincial elections last year, also has been positioning itself as a political force. …

Al-Sadr on Monday urged followers to turn out in large numbers for Sunday’s vote, endorsing the election as a means to rid Iraq of what he called U.S. occupation. …

Sadrist spokesman Salah al-Obeidi said the warrant was “designed to undermine the popular base of Muqtada al-Sadr.” A statement by the politburo of the “Sadrist Trend” — the name by which al-Sadr’s supporters are known — called it an “irresponsible” act by the government.

Spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh, however, denied that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki or anyone in his government had anything to do with the arrest warrant. “This is cheap election propaganda,” he said. “Muqtada al-Sadr is an important figure and his movement is part of the political process.”


2/28/2010 Update

Iraq’s Ex-U.S. Favorite Rising Again Ahead of Vote

By Hamza Hendawi

February 28, 2010

BAGHDAD — Ahmad Chalabi — a one-time Pentagon favorite whose faulty intelligence about weapons of mass destruction helped pave the way for the Iraq war — was a secular politician groomed by his U.S. backers to replace Saddam Hussein.

After falling out with the Americans, the MIT graduate has reinvented himself — again. He is now a top candidate in an alliance led by an Iranian-backed Shiite religious party.

Chalabi, 65, has bolstered his Shiite credentials with a push against former Saddam loyalists from the helm of a committee that banned nearly 500 candidates linked to the ousted Baath Party from running in the March 7 election.

The move has angered Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority and jeopardized U.S. efforts to promote the parliamentary vote as a chance to reconcile the rival Islamic sects following years of violence.

“The Iraqi people have ousted Saddam but the Baath Party is now trying to barge into the political arena again despite the clauses in the constitution that ban the party,” Chalabi said as he addressed a crowd of about 200 tribal leaders and other Shiites Sunday at a campaign rally in northern Baghdad.

It’s testimony to his ability to adapt and to the influence of religion on post-Saddam Iraqi politics despite a backlash against sectarian parties in provincial elections held last year. Chalabi has joined forces with anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s movement and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, or SIIC, in a coalition called the Iraqi National Alliance.

That raises the possibility that he could emerge as a compromise candidate for prime minister if the alliance wins the largest number of seats in the new 325-member legislature. He would be an unlikely choice, but the Sadrists might choose Chalabi since he’s more able to secure the support of other groups to join a coalition government.

Long known as an elitest who is out of touch with Iraqis after spending decades in exile, Chalabi also has been trying to garner more support by appealing to the ordinary man, often singling out al-Sadr’s supporters, mainly impoverished Shiites who comprise the bulk of the population in Baghdad and southern Iraq.

As part of his latest political orientation, Chalabi has been making regular public appearances at major Shiite religious occasions, donning mourning black, for example, at ceremonies dedicated to the seventh century martyrdom of Imam Hussein, one of Shiism’s most revered saints when participants weep and beat their chests to show their sorrow. …

He also was at total ease laying out campaign promises that ranged from jobs, cheap housing, better education, fighting corruption and a transparent government. …

“He is an old fox,” Kazim al-Muqdadai, a political analyst who lectures political science at Baghdad University, said of Chalabi. “He is only thinking of his personal glory.”

Chalabi has drifted far from where he was on the eve of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

At the time, his Pentagon backers saw him as a possible replacement for Saddam. Intelligence he provided on Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction gave the Bush administration reason to invade Iraq. He was a guest at Bush’s State of the Union address in 2004. When no WMDs were found, relations soured quickly.

The Americans picked a rival Shiite, Ayad Allawi, for the prime minister’s job when they formally ended their occupation of Iraq in June 2004. It was during that year too that the Americans accused Chalabi of passing to Iran U.S. military secrets. …


Related reports on this site

Muqtada al-Sadr on the March (April 1, 2010)

Iraq Election Results (March 26, 2010)

Iraq Election Preview (March 6, 2010)


Iraq votes: The 2010 Iraqi parliamentary elections



Rove admits to error on Iraq as Bush strategist (AP, March 2, 2010) — Republican strategist Karl Rove argues in a new memoir, “Courage and Consequence,” that history will look favorably on Bush’s two-term presidency, particularly his decision to invade Iraq. He calls the 2003 invasion the most consequential act of the Bush presidency and a justifiable response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, even though al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden, not Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, were responsible. … Full story



Sunni Party Drops Out of Iraq National Elections

Controversy over legitimacy of vote threatens to re-open sectarian wounds

Image: Saleh al-Mutlaq
Saleh al-Mutlaq, a Sunni politician who has been barred from running in Iraq’s national election next month because of alleged ties to the Baath party, is seen at a press conference in Baghdad on Sept. 5, 2006. (Photo credit: Khalid Mohammed / AP)

February 20, 2010

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s main Sunni party said Saturday it is dropping out of next month’s national elections, seizing on U.S. concerns about Iran’s influence in the political process as proof that the vote will not be legitimate.

A statement from the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue stopped short of urging Sunni voters to boycott the March 7 parliamentary election. But the party called on other political groups to join it in withdrawing from the ballot.

Saturday’s announcement raises the likelihood that the results of the vote will be called into question. U.S. and United Nations diplomats have expressed fears that a Sunni boycott that hands victory to Shiites would throw the results of the election into doubt. In turn, that could open the door to a new round of violence and delay plans for American troops to leave Iraq.

“The Iraqi Front for National Dialogue cannot continue in a political process run by a foreign agenda,” party spokesman Haidar al-Mullah said in a statement, referring to Iran’s alleged interference.

He said the party decided to pull out of the vote after U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill and Army Gen. Ray Odierno, the top American military commander in Iraq, each described the Shiite leaders of a candidate-vetting panel as having ties to Iran.

‘Candidates ‘influenced by Iran’?

The vetting panel is led by Shiite politicians Ali al-Lami and Ahmed Chalabi. It banned more than 440 candidates whom it described as loyalists to Saddam Hussein’s outlawed Baath party. …

In a speech last week to the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, Odierno said the U.S. has direct intelligence that al-Lami and Chalabi “are clearly influenced by Iran.” Odierno also accused al-Lami of having been “involved in various nefarious activities in Iraq for some time.”

A day later, Hill told reporters in Washington that “absolutely, these gentlemen are certainly under the influence of Iran.” …

Setback to security?

A perception among Sunnis that they are being shut out of the election could set back progress the U.S. military has made since 2007 in reversing the insurgency, which threatened Iraq with civil war. A breakdown in security could also hamper U.S. plans to withdraw all combat troops by the end of August, a step that is critical to President Barack Obama’s new focus on Afghanistan.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has blamed Baathists, in part, for a spate of horrific attacks on government buildings, hotels and religious sites since August that killed hundreds of people. Like most Shiite politicians in Iraq, al-Maliki has had a close relationship with Iran. …

The National Dialogue currently has 11 members in parliament, including al-Mutlaq. It is the main Sunni wing of the Iraqi National Movement, the nation’s top nonsectarian coalition. The Shiite wing of the National Movement is headed by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.

Shortly after al-Mullah issued his statement Saturday morning, another party, the National Council for Tribes of Iraq, said it also would drop out. The party includes both Sunnis and Shiites. …

Iraqi election officials say they expect about 19.8 million voters on March 7, and have opened 10,000 polling centers across the country.


Late update: Saleh al-Mutlaq has reversed the decision to pull his party out of the election, thereby mitigating the threat that minority Sunnis would boycott the vote.


3/2/2010 Update

Iraq Sunnis Brace for Election Fallout

Officials fear results of March 7 vote could lead to violence

Image: Iraqi policeman walks past campaign posters
An Iraqi policeman walks past campaign posters for candidates in Iraq’s March 7 national election, in Ramadi on Tuesday, March 2, 2010. (Photo credit: Hadi Mizban / AP)

March 2, 2010

RAMADI, Iraq — Here in the birthplace of Iraq’s insurgency and its later turnabout against al-Qaida, Sunni Arabs are pushing to get out the vote in an election they see as their best hope of restoring some of their lost power. But they are gloomy over their chances of succeeding.

They say what should have been an open vote has been tainted after hundreds of their candidates were blacklisted from the ballot. More broadly, they fear the nation’s Shiite majority will bring to power hard-line religious parties who will only solidify Iraq’s sectarian divisions.

Far from bringing peace, the March 7 parliamentary elections could bring disputes over the results that could undo reconciliation efforts between Sunnis and Shiites, or worse, provoke a new wave of attacks. …

Once Iraq’s ruling elite during Saddam Hussein’s regime, Sunnis lost much of their power after the U.S. invasion toppled the former leader. …

Get out the vote

Sunni Arabs make up about 20 percent of Iraq’s estimated population of 28 million. Anbar province is their stronghold, stretching west from Baghdad to the borders with Syria and Jordan. An estimated 800,000 Sunnis are registered to vote in Anbar, a desert expanse that is a little smaller than New York state.

Anbar Gov. Qasim al-Fahadawi said Tuesday he defied doctors’ orders to come home from San Antonio, Texas, and encourage Sunnis to vote. In Texas, he underwent leg surgery and was outfitted for a prosthetic arm after a December suicide bomb attack on his Ramadi office. …

Candidates ban

The blacklist has fueled Sunni feeling that Shiites are trying to squeeze them out of power. A Shiite-dominated committee, led by two politicians whom U.S. officials accuse of being linked to Iran, ordered the ban on 440 candidates on suspicion of ties to Saddam’s former ruling Baath Party. The ban is widely believed to target mostly Sunnis although a sectarian breakdown has never been released and Shiites are included.

The main Sunni political bloc splintered in 2008, and its chief remaining faction, the Iraqi Islamic Party, is shunned by many mainstream Sunnis because of its hard-line religious ties. As a result, many of Anbar’s voters say they will support coalitions that combine Sunni and Shiite candidates in a nonsectarian platform, like the Iraqiya list headed by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a moderate Shiite.

One of the most prominent banned candidates, Sunni politician Saleh al-Mutlaq, was on Allawi’s slate, and many of his supporters say they would still give their votes to the list. …

Sectarian divisions

Sunnis hope moderate coalitions that include both sects will balance the hard-line Shiite groups that they accuse of links to Iran and that could get the bulk of the Shiite majority’s support.

The biggest Shiite coalition is the Iraqi National Alliance, an overtly religious grouping led by the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and followers of the radical anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Sunnis also remain suspicious of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite who has tried to distance himself from Tehran and cast his State of Law Coalition as nonsectarian. Last week, his government announced it would reinstate 20,000 Saddam-era army officers who were dismissed after the 2003 invasion. But many called that move a blatant election ploy. …


Iran Arrests Sunni Rebel Accused of Links with West

By Parisa Hafezi and Hossein Jaseb

February 23, 2010

TEHRAN — Iran seized a Sunni Muslim rebel leader on Tuesday behind a bombing which killed dozens of people last year, and who Tehran says has links to al Qaeda and support from Pakistan, Britain and the United States.

There were contradictory reports about how Iranian security forces detained Jundollah leader Abdolmalek Rigi, whose group had claimed the October 18 bombing that killed more than 40 Iranians, including 15 from the elite Revolutionary Guards.

Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi said Rigi had been in a U.S. military base 24 hours before his arrest, was carrying an Afghan passport supplied by the United States and had earlier visited European countries, state-run Press TV reported. …

The United States, Britain and Pakistan all deny backing Jundollah, which operates in Iran’s southeastern province of Sistan-Baluchistan, bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Moslehi said Rigi had been arrested on board a plane flying between Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia and the Gulf Arab emirate of Dubai. …

Some lawmakers said Iranian warplanes might have intercepted Rigi’s aircraft and forced it to land in Iran. …

Jundollah accuses the government of discrimination against Sunnis. …


Syria, Iran Affirm Ties Despite U.S. Calls

Image: Bashar Aassad, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, right, and Syrian President Bashar Assad review the honor guard at al-Shaab presidential palace, in Damascus on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2010. (Photo credit: Bassem Tellawi / AP)

February 25, 2010

DAMASCUS, Syria — Syrian President Bashar Assad defied U.S. calls to loosen ties with Iran on Thursday, saying his long-standing alliance with Tehran remains strong despite overtures from Washington intended to shift his loyalties.

The U.S. has reached out to Syria in recent months by nominating the first U.S. ambassador to Damascus since 2005 and sending top diplomats to meet with President Bashar Assad. Washington is hoping to draw Syria away from Iran and the militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas.

But with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by his side in Damascus, Assad said Thursday that America should not dictate relationships in the Middle East.

“I find it strange how they talk about Middle East stability and at the same time talk about dividing two countries,” Assad told reporters when asked about Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s call Wednesday for Syria to move away from Iran. …

President Barack Obama is determined to engage with Syria, a country seen as key to peace in the region but which the State Department considers a sponsor of terrorism. …

‘A new situation’

Speaking to lawmakers in Washington, Clinton said the nomination of career diplomat Robert Ford signaled a “slight opening” with Syria. But she said Washington remained troubled by suspected Syrian support for militant groups in Iraq and elsewhere, interference in Lebanon and Syria’s close relationship with Iran.

Ahmadinejad’s trip comes amid rising U.S. tension with Iran over its nuclear program. The U.S. and others believe Iran is hiding nuclear weapons development under the guise of a civilian energy program. Iran insist its intentions are peaceful.

Assad called America’s stance toward Iran “a new situation of colonialism in the region.”

Despite its efforts to woo Syria, Washington has not lifted sanctions on Damascus. First imposed by [George W.] Bush and renewed by Obama in May, the sanctions cite Syria’s support for terrorism, its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and other activities including efforts to undermine U.S. operations in Iraq.

‘Brotherly relations’

Iran’s economic and political support has enabled Syria to survive those sanctions and international isolation.

Ahmadinejad stressed that Syria and Iran are partners with a long history.

“There is nothing that could harm these brotherly relations,” he said. “With each passing day, these relations will improve and deepen.” …


FROM THE ARCHIVES: One Year Ago — February 25, 2009

Americans Killed in Afghanistan and Iraq

One-year retrospective: One year ago today, I reported that four U.S. soldiers and an Afghan civilian working for them were killed in southern Afghanistan when their vehicle struck a roadside bomb, while in Iraq two policemen opened fire on U.S. soldiers visiting a police station, killing an American soldier and an Iraqi interpreter, wounding three Americans, and raising concerns about insurgent infiltration.

15 Responses to “Iraq Set to Elect Pro-Iran Leader”
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