BASRA, Iraq (Reuters) – Iraq’s Shi’ite Muslim voters chose nationalism and security over religion in local polls, backing allies of the prime minister in a vote that could give them the upper hand in parliamentary elections later this year.
Results from Saturday’s election are due later on Thursday, and early signs point to potentially big wins for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s allies at the expense of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (ISCI), which had dominated the Shi’ite south.
Maliki heads the Dawa Party, an Islamist group, but the coalition it led in the polls made little mention of religion.
Instead it sought to seek credit for growing security and promoted a message of national unity to voters tired of years of sectarian bloodshed and a failure to deliver services under the largely religious leaders in charge since 2005.
“It’s not a backlash against religion, it’s a backlash against promises made in terms of sectarian identity,” said Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at the University of London.
ISCI, which has ties to a powerful militia formed in Iran, conceded Maliki’s coalition had won a landslide in the oil-producing southern city of Basra and may have come first in Baghdad.
But it says it still came first or second in 11 of the 14 provinces that voted in what turned out to be Iraq’s most peaceful election since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Big wins for Maliki’s followers could mark a major shift in Iraqi politics away from religious identity, pulling the rug out from under ISCI, Iraq’s most powerful Shi’ite group.
ISCI ran an overtly religious campaign, invoking Shi’ite ritual and its perceived closeness to Iraq’s top Shi’ite clergy, or Marjaiya, headed by revered cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, despite his wish to remain above the political fray.
ISCI’s losses bode ill for it ahead of parliamentary polls due later this year, raising fears over its next move.
“Will ISCI accept this, or will they resort to sabotage, to armed conflict, or other things?” Ghassan al-Atiyyah of the Iraq Foundation for Democracy and Development said.
Formed in exile in Iran during Saddam Hussein’s reign, ISCI is well funded, and many resent its perceived foreign backing. Many voters say they have not seen much improvement in the southern provinces ISCI has controlled since 2005.
“ISCI has several strikes against it (such as) the attempt to invoke religious references, especially Sistani, when the ayatollah himself clearly rejected this,” Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group think-tank said.
“It’s the poor governance of the past four years, and its baggage. People have never learned to trust ISCI. They still think of it as an Iranian proxy,” he added.
ISCI had also pushed for an independent Shi’ite region in Iraq’s south, though little was made of this in their campaign. Maliki, in contrast, called for national unity and a strong central government, and touted the sharp fall in violence in Iraq over the past 18 months.
“Maliki changed his clothes he didn’t mention Islam in his speeches, he didn’t speak as the Dawa Party, but as a secularist would speak, about civil society,” Atiyyah said.
Another key player in the Shi’ite south, followers of the cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, also eschewed religious campaigning.
Religion loomed large over Iraqi politics amid the Sunni-Shi’ite bloodbath that followed the U.S. invasion, and a broad Shi’ite coalition corralled the Shi’ite vote in 2005.
“The (coalition) failed in government, and so the Shi’ite vote is not on the basis of sectarian identity but bread and butter issues, like security and service delivery,” Dodge said.
“That leaves ISCI very vulnerable and exposed,” he added.
WHAT NEXT FOR ISCI?
ISCI may have clung to enough clout to neuter some of Dawa’s influence. It has a lot of money and patronage to dispense and may yet dominate through alliances, analysts say.
The possible strong ISCI losses in the provincial elections, may on the other hand, trigger an implosion of the party.
ISCI’s leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim has cancer, and his son Ammar al-Hakim seems certain to replace him, a hereditary succession that may not please all ISCI members.
Also, a lot of ISCI’s power has derived from its close alliance with the Badr Organization, which has seats in parliament as well as a powerful armed wing.
“The Badr Organization will now feel more encouraged to act separately, more independently,” Attiya said.