Shia blocs in Iraq remain divided months after vote

Sunni and Kurdish parties to be decisive in creating the largest bloc which will form the new government, analysts say.

Iraq Hadi al-Ameri
The Sairoon Alliance and the Fateh bloc remain at loggerheads [Arwa Ibrahim/Al Jazeera]

Baghdad, Iraq – Nearly three months since Iraqis went to the polls to cast their ballots in a parliamentary election, a new government is yet to be announced – and the wait might be long.

With no party or bloc able to secure an outright majority in the May 12 vote, political leaders in the country began negotiations over the formation of a governing coalition.

The process, however, has been put on hold due to a manual recount of votes that was called on in June following allegations of rigging. 

But as soon as the final results are announced, the blocs will be scrambling to announce their coalition partners.

Uncertainty persists, however, as the two Shia blocs that won the most parliamentary seats in the initial count – the Sairoon Alliance led by Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr and the Fateh bloc led by Hadi al-Amiri – remain at loggerheads.

Analysts say this lack of unity now places the ball in the court of Sunni and Kurdish parties. The decision by these parties over which of the two opposing Shia fronts to join will be crucial in the formation of the majority bloc – and the eventual naming of the country’s next prime minister.

Seeking a majority bloc

A coalition government needs a majority of parliamentary seats – at least 165 out of a total of 329.

If initial electoral results are confirmed, Sadr’s Sairoon Alliance – which brings together his Sadrist movement and the Iraqi Communist Party – would have the most with 54.

Coming in second with 47 seats will be al-Amiri’s Fateh bloc, which is composed of Iran-backed Shia political and armed groups.

On June 13, Sadr, who opposes Iranian involvement in Iraq, and al-Amiri announced a surprise alliance in Najaf.

But speaking to Al Jazeera, Fateh’s spokesperson Ahmed al-Assadi denied that an official partnership with Sairoon had been forged, saying instead that the alliance announced in June only amounts to preliminary talks.

He said the group is in discussions with all political parties equally.

Stumbling blocks

Still, both Sairoon and Fateh told Al Jazeera that they are in ongoing talks and have no issue in joining forces.

And while such an alliance would go a long way in the efforts to form a new government, there are several main stumbling blocks that remain in the way.

The first is Fateh’s close ties with former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law Coalition – the one Shia bloc Sairoon refuses to ally itself with. 

The animosity between Sadr and Maliki can be traced back to 2008 when the Iraqi army under Maliki’s premiership succeeded in driving out Sadr’s Mahdi Army from the southern city of Basra. Sadr also blames Maliki for the fall of vast Iraqi territory to ISIL in 2014.

“We have no issue with Fateh, as long as they agree to our approach of forming a non-sectarian government and don’t hold onto imposing a specific person for the role of prime minister,” Salah al-Ubaidi, spokesperson for the Sadrist Movement, told Al Jazeera.

“The only bloc which we refuse to join forces with is Maliki’s State of Law,” he added.

The Sadiqoon Party says it is open for negotiations with everyone [Arwa Ibrahim/Al Jazeera]
The Sadiqoon Party says it is open for negotiations with everyone [Arwa Ibrahim/Al Jazeera]

Laith al-Adhary is the spokesperson for the Sadiqoon Party, which is linked to Asaib Ahl al-Haq, one of a group of Iranian-backed fighters under the Fateh bloc.

He says their door is open for negotiations with everyone, as long as “no bloc is marginalised in talks”, referring to Maliki’s State of Law.

The second obstacle involves the Hashd al-Shaabi, or the Popular Mobilisation Forces, an armed group that Sadr has for long insisted needs to be dissolved.

“One of our top conditions is that the Hashd remains intact. Without them, there won’t be security in the country. That’s something we won’t compromise on,” Adhary told Al Jazeera.

The Hashd al-Shaabi is an umbrella organisation that includes groups like Badr’s fighters – the armed wing of Fateh – which was established in 2014 with the purpose of fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) after it captured vast territory in Iraq.

The Hashd al-Shaabi have faced accusations of abuse against civilians, especially in Sunni-majority areas.

Two opposing fronts

The sharp divide between Sairoon and Fateh has created two opposing fronts within the five main Shia blocs, which in the past stood united and were decisive in forming previous governments.

On the one end is Sairoon and al-Hikma, another Shia bloc led by Ammar al-Hakim, and on the other is Fateh and State of Law, while incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s Nasr Coalition – which came in third in May’s vote – is left in the middle.

“Fateh has tried to bring together all the Shia blocs and not marginalise anyone, but they don’t all get along,” said Hamza Mostafa, an Iraqi political analyst.

“Despite all the talks back and forth, what stands is that Fateh is tied to Maliki’s State of Law, while Sadr’s Sairoon remains staunchly against Maliki. This personification of the situation is the reason behind the delay in forging a coalition government.”

Jassim Mousawi, a politics professor and analyst, agreed.

“The division between the Shia blocs is deep – Sairoon will never agree with State of Law, and Hikma won’t let go of Sairoon,” he said.

Another obstacle is that each bloc – bar Sairoon – has its own candidate for prime minister, which makes it difficult for them to agree on one name.

According to Mostafa, these divisions leave the main Sunni blocs – al-Qarar al-Iraqi and a number of other smaller parties – and the Kurdish lists – Barham Salih’s Democracy and Justice Party, Masoud Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), the Gorran and Komal – in a position to be more effective than previously in deciding a new government.

“As soon as the recount is done, each group will try to attract the Sunnis and Kurds because neither bloc [Fateh vs Sairoon] is able to form a majority bloc among the Shia blocs alone,” said Mostafa.

And yet, it remains unclear who the Kurds and Sunnis will join.

“The Sunni and Kurdish parties are also divided amongst themselves,” said Mostafa.

“We can expect them to join whichever group guarantees their demands,” he added, referring to a long list of issues which include discussions over disputed areas for the Kurds, and promises to rebuild destructed areas for the Sunnis.

Despite this deep division, however, Mostafa said it was unlikely either side of the two Shia fronts would become opposition parties.

“At the end of the day, none of these Shia blocs will want to be in the opposition. Whoever isn’t in the majority bloc will agree to positions in the government they are offered.

“And, as before, whoever becomes prime minister will be agreeable to both Iran and the US,” added Mostafa.

Although that person would normally be al-Abadi, his coalition is in a weak position after finishing third.

It is also unclear which side of the two Shia fronts he will join, raising the uncertainty faced by Iraq.  

Follow Arwa Ibrahim on Twitter: @arwaIb

Source: Al Jazeera