BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki announced on Thursday a new coalition that will run against former Shi’ite Muslim allies in January’s national elections, raising the prospect of intra-sectarian strife.
In a speech in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, Maliki left the door open to working with other political groups, but his allies told Reuters his State of Law coalition had no desire to join a rival alliance headed by other powerful Shi’ite parties.
“The birth of State of Law represents a historic milestone and development in establishing a modern Iraq built on peaceful, nationalist principles … far from the politics of marginalisation, discrimination and tyranny,” Maliki said.
Ambitions for such a turning point for Iraq’s fragile democracy will be tested in the country’s first general election since 2005, which takes place just as U.S. troops prepare to withdraw and local forces seek to defeat a stubborn insurgency.
A smooth vote may help consolidate security gains, but many fear friction among Shi’ite parties may spark greater violence.
Maliki’s Dawa party, part of a broad Shi’ite alliance that swept to power after 2005 polls and has dominated majority Shi’ite Iraq since, has chosen not to join the recently formed, mostly Shi’ite Iraqi National Alliance (INA).
The INA is headed by the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (ISCI), a powerful Shi’ite party which has close ties to Iran. Those close to the prime minister say Maliki, spurning calls to join the INA, wanted a broader coalition including a greater number of minority Sunni Arabs and Kurds, which might give him a better chance of winning a second term.
“There is no desire to join the INA,” said Abdul Hadi al-Hasani, a senior State of Law coalition member.
At first glance, Maliki’s coalition appeared to include more well-known Sunni Muslims and other minorities than the INA.
Maliki, whose Dawa party was founded in the 1950s to increase the role of Shi’ite Islam in politics, is trying to rebrand himself as a nationalist and claim credit for a sharp drop in violence in Iraq.
Maliki and coalition allies vowed repeatedly to battle insurgents and militias and to keep party agendas out of local security forces seen as highly politicised.
Another reason Maliki may have spurned the INA a belief it gave ISCI too much clout relative to the party’s popular support, which has ebbed since 2005 as Iraqis blamed dominant parties for corruption and a failure to deliver basic services.
It is also possible Maliki declined to join the INA because it refused to guarantee him a second term if it wins.
Maliki, who has shaken an image of weakness to emerge as a forceful figure in Iraq, alarmed his political partners when he made wide gains in provincial polls this past January. The split in Maliki and ISCI’s Shi’ite political bloc, now the biggest in parliament, is certain to boost tensions in a country still plagued by violence.
Yet it could also mark a maturing of Iraq’s democracy if there was a credible shift away from the sectarian and identity politics which has defined Iraq’s legislative system to date.
The INA includes the movement of the fiery anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and a few Kurds and Sunnis.
The State of Law coalition includes Maliki’s Dawa party, Shi’ite Kurds, Sunni tribal sheikhs, independents headed by deputy parliamentary speaker Khalid al-Attiya, and the Iraqi Competence Group, headed by government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh.