New Alliances In Iraq Cross Sectarian Lines

In Baghdad, Saleh al-Mutlak, a leading secular Sunni Arab politician, says his supporters will ally with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, of the Shiite Dawa party, in four provinces.
In Baghdad, Saleh al-Mutlak, a leading secular Sunni Arab politician, says his supporters will ally with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, of the Shiite Dawa party, in four provinces. (By Andrea Bruce -- The Washington Post)
Buy Photo
By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 20, 2009

BAGHDAD, March 19 -- Six weeks after provincial elections, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has allied himself with an outspoken Sunni leader in several provinces and broached a coalition with a militant, anti-American cleric, suggesting the emergence of a new axis of power in Iraq centered on a strong central government and nationalism.

Negotiations are still underway in most provinces, distrust remains entrenched among nearly all the players, and agreements could crumble. But the jockeying after the Jan. 31 elections indicates that politicians are assembling coalitions that cross the sectarian divide ahead of parliamentary elections later this year, a vote that will shape the country as the U.S. military withdraws.

"There is a new political map," said Anwar al-Luheibi, a Sunni adviser to Maliki, who is a Shiite. "And I anticipate this map will be far better than the one we had before."

The negotiations and dealmaking mark a departure from politics that have hewed almost exclusively to ethnic and sectarian lines, fomenting the discord that brought Iraq to the precipice of civil war in 2006 and 2007. They represent the first round of a great game that may resolve a question unanswered since Saddam Hussein's fall in 2003: What coalition of interests will find the formula to wield power in Iraq from Baghdad?

With his strong performance in the provincial elections, Maliki is the front-runner in forging such an alliance, a remarkable ascent for a lawmaker considered weak and pliable when he was put forward as a consensus candidate for prime minister three years ago.

Forgoing the slogans of his Islamist past for a platform of law and order, his party won a majority of seats on the council in Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, and emerged as the single biggest bloc in Baghdad and four other provinces in the south, which has a Shiite Muslim majority. In most provinces, though, his party must make coalitions if it hopes to help determine who will fill the governorship and other key provincial positions.

Saleh al-Mutlak, a leading secular Sunni Arab politician known for his nationalism and strident opposition to the U.S. occupation, said his supporters will ally with Maliki in four provinces: Diyala, Salahuddin, Baghdad and Babil. Mutlak heads the Iraqi National Dialogue Front, but his supporters ran under different labels in provincial contests. Mutlak said Ayad Allawi, a former prime minister who led a secular list in the campaign, will also join the alliances.

The convergence of their interests is a stark contrast to the alliances that followed elections in 2005, which Sunni Arabs largely boycotted. Their refusal to vote gave religious Shiites and Kurds disproportionate power in provinces such as Baghdad, Diyala and Nineveh, all with substantial Sunni populations. In predominantly Shiite southern Iraq and Sunni western Iraq, power coalesced around ostensibly religious parties, whose members built their appeal on clandestine organizations in exile, underground networks under Hussein, support from Iran and other neighbors and, occasionally, the end of a militiaman's gun.

This time, some coalitions seem to be based on ideology: a strong central government that Maliki, along with secular candidates such as Allawi and Mutlak, have endorsed, as well as opposition to the kind of federalism espoused by Maliki's Shiite rivals, who favor a Shiite-ruled zone in the south, and Kurdish parties that control an autonomous region in the north. Both Maliki and Mutlak have rallied support among Arab and nationalist constituents by opposing Kurdish territorial claims, particularly around the contested city of Kirkuk.

Mutlak draws backing from among the still-numerous supporters of Hussein's Baath Party in Sunni regions, and he has long pushed for reconciliation with its members. Despite his reputation as a Shiite hard-liner when he came to power in 2006, Maliki echoed the call this month. In a speech, he urged Iraqis to reconcile with rank-and-file Baathists, those he described as "forced and obliged at one time to be on the side of the former regime."

He declared that it was time "to let go of what happened" in the past.

Mutlak said he told Maliki in a meeting two months ago that "there was a time when you stood against me on those issues. 'You should be happy I changed,' he told me." Smiling in the interview, Mutlak joked that first the prime minister "stole the government from us, and now he's trying to steal our political speech from us."

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company