HomeFeaturesDailyBriefingsRapidReconSpecial ReportsAbout Us

Iraq's New Political Alignment

By Kirk H. Sowell | September 25, 2006

This article is intended to serve as an introduction to Iraqi politics, the basic policy orientations of the important factions and the political evolution which has taken place over the past year and a half since Iraq elected its first democratic government. While the Shi'a/Sunni Arab/Kurd divide is well known, how the various parties and movements relate to each other is not, and this analysis seeks to fill this gap. While violence in Iraq continues to animate from both Sunni and Shi'a sources, a new political center is emerging consisting of factions from all segments of society, and indeed as this article will show, the violence has itself driven this emerging consensus, and on its consolidation rides the future of Iraq.

This article contains three sections. The first section of the analysis is a broad overview of the whole of Iraq's political landscape, including Shi'a, Sunnis and Kurds, not only those inside the government and those in opposition, but those outside the political process, such as al-Qaeda. The second section provides the raw data for the seat distribution first within the Iraqi parliament as a whole, and then within the ruling party. The third section takes a more detailed look at the background and politics of the Shi'a political factions which make up the government's dominate coalition.

Iraq's Emerging Political Center

As we discussed in a preceding report ("Anbar Sunnis Turn on al-Qaeda"), this past week saw what might be described as the last rites of an anti-American coalition which had arisen in 2003-2005 but which was destined to splinter. Those opposing the U.S. military could be broken down into four groups - foreign jihadists, led by al-Qaeda, who sought to establish a globally-focused caliphate based in Baghdad which excluded the Shi’a; Sunni Islamist Iraqis who sought an Islamic state; secularist Baathist Iraqis who sought the reestablishment of the regime of Saddam Hussein; and the Sadriya movement of Muqtada al-Sadr and its militia, the Mahdi Army, which sought a Shi’a-led Islamic state in Iraq. Given that their goals were from the beginning mutually exclusive, the mere passage of time assured that they would turn on each other, and they have. Mahdi Army attacks on Sunnis and al-Qaeda attacks on both Sunnis and Shi'a have convinced most Iraqi Sunnis that as much as they hate having American troops in their country, the Western presence is necessary for the time being.

There have also been suggestions that al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Ansar al-Sunna Army in Iraq are considering uniting. It is difficult to be sure about the significance of this report, assuming it is accurate, since the two have cooperated in the past anyway. Little ultimately will turn on this development, however, because Iraq's security problem arises from the fact that the government faces both foreign jihadists and native Sunni insurgent groups, along with a Shi'a militia, Sadr's Mahdi Army, which is killing Sunnis. Since many of the Iraqi insurgents have indicated their willingness to give up the fight in principle, one major impediment to them doing so is that they need to stay armed to defend themselves against the Mahdi Army. If the latter can be subdued, and the former coaxed into joining the political process, foreign jihadists will come to an end in Iraq regardless of whether they are one, two or three factions. It will simply be a matter of time at that point.

Simultaneous to the changes in alignment on the side of the militants, this past year has also seen the emergence of a new political center in Iraq, committed to reconciliation and the resolution of differences through the political process. By "political center" we do not mean to imply an alliance, or even that the main factions like each other - the main Sunni and Shi'a blocks in fact hate each other, but the change is that now they are shouting rather than shooting at one another. Their support for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's national unity government varies by faction, but their commitment to the political process appears to be solid as long as certain "red lines" are respected. Following the January 2005 election, the Iraqi parliament was dominated by the Shi'a and the Kurds due to a boycott by major Sunni leaders, but the latter soon realized their mistake, and began organizing for the political process. The December 2005 election which produced the current government saw a sharp rise in the total percentage of seats held by the Sunnis, from almost none to 29 percent. That the three Sunni-dominated parties achieved more seats than the Sunni percentage of the population (about one-fifth) is due to the fact that they claimed to be non-sectarian and had some success in attracting Shi'a Arab voters.

This emerging political center has three elements, (1) Shi'a religious factions, (2) Sunni factions which draw some support from secularist Shi'a, and (3) the Kurdish factions. On the Shi'a side, this includes two of the main factions of the ruling United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) plus most if not all of the UIA's independents. Together they account for roughly two-thirds of the ruling party's seats (a detailed look at the Shi'a factions is below). Of the predominately Sunni factions (all claim to be non-sectarian), the Iraqi Accord Front, led by Adnan Dulaimi, the National Iraqi List, led by former prime minister Iyad Allawi, a secularist Shi'a, and the National Dialogue Front, led by Salih Mutlak, are most important. When there is a split between the Sunni factions and the UIA in parliament, Allawi's group tends to align with the Sunnis.

Outside the political process there are still armed insurgents among the Sunnis, and many of their individual members voted but nevertheless as groups they still maintain their arms. Many of these insurgents groups - precise numbers and percentages are not known, but they account for the bulk of the Sunni population in many areas - have entered into the conferences arranged by the prime minister's national reconciliation and amnesty initiative. Some of them are making demands that the government will not consider accepting, such as the release of Saddam Hussein and the immediate withdrawal of coalition forces from Iraq, yet the fact that they are indicating a willingness to join the Shi'a-led government in the political process is significant.

There are also three Kurdish factions, although they ran as two groups for electoral purposes. The Kurdish Coalition is the main Kurdish faction in parliament, and it is composed of several factions, the two most important of which are the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), headed by Kurdish provincial leader Masud Barzani, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), headed by Iraqi President Jalal Talibani. It is the second most powerful group in parliament after the UIA, and its support is indispensable to an Iraqi prime minister. The Islamic Union of Kurdistan ran on its own electoral list over disagreements with the other main factions, and although smaller, it is large enough that its support for the government - or refusal thereof - is meaningful.

The Division Of Political Power

Following is a precise breakdown of the division of political power in Iraq, beginning with the national parliament on top and then below looking at the seat totals of the factions within the ruling party. The seat percentage is given first, then the number of seats in parentheses:

Seats in the National Parliament (275 total; see Appendix 4, IMIE Final Report [PDF]) -

United Iraqi Alliance: 47% (128)
Kurdistan Coalition: 19% (53)
Iraqi Accord Front: 16% (44)
National Iraqi List: 9% (25)
Iraqi National Dialogue Front: 4% (11)
Islamic Union of Kurdistan: 2% (5)

There were six other parties which have three or fewer seats; four of them have only one seat each.

Division of Seats Within the UIA (ruling party seat distribution) -

SCIRI: 23% (29)
Sadrist: 22% (28)
Independents: 22% (28)
Dawa Party: 20% (26)
Fadhila Party: 13% (17)

The Shi'a Factions

The United Iraqi Alliance is a coalition of Shi'a religious parties and like-minded independent candidates. It was blessed by the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani prior to both the January and December 2005 elections. Shortly prior to the most recent election, Sistani publicly called upon Shi'a voters to not fragment their votes but to concentrate them on factions within the UIA. This effectively destroyed the chances of secular Shi'a parties like Ahmad Chalibi's Iraqi National Congress.

Although Sistani's teachings on religion and politics are deliberately vague, they are usually interpreted to limiting the role of clerics to that of advisors rather than any direct or overt political role. Sistani, who is one of only a handful of scholars holding the title of marja, the highest authority in Shi'ism, usually refrains from making statements on narrow policy issues, limiting his pronouncements to general principles, but when the call is made, most Shi'a faithful follow. When in early 2006 Sunni Arab and Kurdish parties were blocking the renomination of Ibrahim al-Jaafari as prime minister, Sistani called upon the UIA to make unspecified "concessions" or lose his support, and Jaafari withdrew the following week. All of the factions within the UIA save one claim to follow Sistani's authority. Understanding of the political dynamics in Iraq requires examination of the factions within the ruling UIA and their relative power.

The largest and most powerful faction is the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI. Led by Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, who has a dual role as head of SCIRI and as chairman of the UIA, SCIRI has 23 percent of the seats within the coalition. As is clear from the numbers above, SCIRI's seat total is barely larger than that of the other main factions, but its strength is augmented by the fact that the large group of independents within the alliance regularly align with it. This has happened repeatedly in parliamentary votes; when the Sadrists have split with the UIA leadership over an issue, they have done so alone, or in a few cases, with support from Fadhila. In the recent debate on the SCIRI-backed federalism bill, for example, the Sadrists alone among the Shi'a opposed it. A contemporaneous vote demanding a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops likewise drew support only from some Sunnis, but it doesn't appear that any of the independents supported them (they got 104 votes, which is less than the total of the three Sunni parties plus the Sadrist representatives). So even when the Sadrists disagree with SCIRI, the position of the UIA is always reported as being the same as that of SCIRI.

The alignment of the UIA independents with SCIRI has been even more notable in the context of internal UIA voting. After the election in December, internal votes for the award of proportional seats reflected this. The Iraqi electoral system works by awarding seats to coalitions on two bases, geography-based seats and "compensatory seats" awarded to the coalition as a whole, the winners of which are able to distribute based on their own strength. The UIA won 109 seats based on districts, plus 19 proportional seats, with the Sadriya having a slight plurality and SCIRI being a close second. The Sadr faction, Dawa and Fadhila each were awarded proportional seats roughly approximate to their seat total within the coalition, but SCIRI was awarded nine out of 19 coalition seats, or 45 percent, a share which is identical to the percentage of SCIRI and independent members combined. The seats which would have been voted to the independents had they belonged to a separate party were shifted to SCIRI.

A second example of this took place in the internal coalition election for prime minister. When former prime minister Jaafari was nominated by Dawa, the party he led, he reportedly beat the SCIRI candidate by a single vote. Since the Sadrists and Fadhila both backed Jaafari, the independents must have voted with SCIRI to acheive such a close vote (having the vote be that close would have also required a handful of abstentions among either the Sadrists or Fadhila, and dissension within Fadhila over the issue was noted in some news reports).

This is not to suggest that UIA independents are closet members of SCIRI, or that they might not abandon Hakim in the future. During the Baathist era, SCIRI was supported by Iran and it espoused the principle of velayat e faqih, or rule of Islamic jurists, which is the guiding principle of the Iranian constitution. The doctrine is not held to by Sistani or the other factions, and SCIRI has been quiet on the issue while making clear that its senior religious figures would not take government positions. Yet if SCIRI were to begin advocating velayat e faqih for Iraq, it is reasonable to assume that it would face a revolt within the UIA.

Dawa, the party of both of Iraq's elected prime ministers, Jaafari and Maliki, is the oldest Islamist party in the country. Its dominance has been eroded over the years first by a series of internal splits and then last year by the rise of the Sadriya. Dawa and SCIRI dominated the January 2005 elections, but as is clear from the numbers above, the rise of the Sadr faction left Dawa's two electoral lists with the third largest total even combined, and the Sadrists drew support directly from Dawa's ranks. This fact may explain why Dawa has acted as the most moderate of the UIA factions in recent months, with good relations with the U.S. and the Sunnis; Sadr's radicalism has naturally attracted those of a more radical bent, leaving Dawa more moderate.

The erosion of Dawa's electoral base has also made Maliki even more dependent upon other factions, both within and without the UIA, especially SCIRI. The two Dawa factions each received 10 percent of the UIA's seats, so the prime minister's faction only has about five percent of the total in parliament.

The political faction of Muqtada al-Sadr does not have a formal party name - the Iraqi press simply refers to it as al-tiyar al-sadri, the "Sadr movement" or "tendency" - but its members in parliament are identifiable as a bloc and are not independents. In addition to the 28 Sadrist seats within the UIA, there are two seats on a separate list outside the UIA which are loyal to Sadr, and this would give him the largest voting bloc were it not for the alignment of UIA independents with SCIRI. Although a young cleric who is sometimes derided for taking up politics before completing his proper education (some Arab writers refer to him as al-shab Muqtada al-Sadr, "the young man"), Sadr hails from a clerical family of great prestige, and his forebearers helped found and lead the Dawa Party when it was the strongest force opposing Saddam Hussein during the Baathist era. In addition to his Mahdi Army militia, Sadr's movement commands a significant network of schools, mosques and medical clinics which give it strong standing among the poor. Although like his forebearers Sadr does not advocate the Iranian doctrine of velayat e faqih, geopolitically he is aligned with Tehran and Damascus, and has been the most vocally pro-Hizballah voice in Iraq. While Sadr still claims to follow the religious authority of Sistani, he in fact has been at variance with the revered marja time and time again the past two years.

Fadhila is the smallest Shi'a faction within the UIA, and is distinguishable because its separate existence is based upon allegiance to the Ayatollah Muhammad Yaqubi, while SCIRI, Dawa and the Sadrists all claim to follow the authority of Sistani. Because Fadhila chose not to participate in the new government, it is a negligible force at the national level. Yet it remains a force in Basra, which is Iraq's largest Shi'a-majority city, and the city's problems with violence and corruption are largely related to the struggle for power among the UIA factions there. Fadhila has defied Maliki's leadership on a range of issues, from cooperation with the United States to the government's attempt to bring federal security control to Basra. Fadhila controlled the Iraqi oil ministry under Jaafari, and was desprived of it under Maliki due to corruption; this is what caused the party to stay outside the government. On any given issue where Maliki and Sadr part ways, Fadhila is often found siding with Sadr.

The federalism debate is a major factor bearing on the internal Shi'a power struggle. While SCIRI's provincial autonomy plan is usually presented in the Western media as a plan to partition Iraq, that is mainly the Sunni Arab angle. For the Shi'a factions, it is a power struggle (for a detailed look at this issue, see our report, "Federalism Delayed Amid Sunni, Sadrist Opposition"). Local elections have shown that SCIRI dominates in the Shi'a heartland of southern Iraq except Basra, where the Sadrists and Fadhila are stronger. So whereas Hakim's autonomy plan would engulf Basra in a larger south Iraq governate, knowing that this would favor SCIRI, Sadr opposes the plan entirely and Fadhila advocates an autonomy plan with a much larger number of provinces -16 - which would allow them to govern where they are strongest. Meanwhile, Dawa is divided on the issue, but Maliki himself was a lead negotiator in the constitutional negotiations which produced the federalism clause, so he can be counted as an ally of SCIRI on this issue.

The Coalition Calculus

All of these factions come down to a fairly simple equation; Maliki's reliable supporters include his own Dawa Party, SCIRI and like-minded independents, along with the Kurdish parties, which give him 141 seats - a three-seat majority. This is if every independent Shi'a supports him, even without Sunni support. As a practical matter, however, some significant support from Sunni Arabs is necessary for governance. As noted above, Fadhila has not joined the government and the Sadrists have joined it but frequently vote against it on specific issues. Thus there is a balance; Maliki needs some Sunni Arab support regardless, but if Sadr is against him he needs more than otherwise, whereas with Sadrist support his government could function with simply the largest Sunni faction on board. This is why when all three Sunni-dominated factions leave parliament it cannot function, but if the Sadrists walk out - or if only a single Sunni party walks out - Maliki can still do business. Where the Sadrists and the Sunnis agree - such as on the issue of federalism - they are able to effectively impede the government, even though they are a minority.

The Iraqi governing coalition will for the forseeable future revolve around the trade-off that Maliki faces between the Sadrists on the one hand and the Sunni factions on the other. To the extent that Sunnis blame Mahdi Army death squads for the killing of Sunni civilians, the more that Maliki approves military operations against the Sadriya, the more Sunni support he is likely to have. The same is true to a degree of SCIRI, Maliki's most important supporter; when coalition forces attack Mahdi Army cells there are always criticisms, but never from SCIRI, and the silence is deafening. Hakim is very outspoken when he believes that the U.S. has gone wrong, and as the UIA's most powerful figure, attacks on the Mahdi Army would not proceed without his quiet approval. All of the factions of the UIA are competitors, but only SCIRI and the Sadriya have exchanged gunfire - through their militias - since the establishment of elected government. Hakim surely feels that every Sadrist that coalition forces kill is one less he has to deal with.

The challenge for Maliki and future prime ministers, then, will be to hold together the two Shi'a factions and like-minded independents, the moderate Sunni-dominated factions and the Kurds. If more elements of Sunni Arab Iraq can be brought into the political process, this will lessen a prime minister's dependence on the Sadrists. Put differently, more reconciliation would strengthen the political center, and make it easier for Iraq's leaders to face down those who use violence to enforce their vision, whether Sunni or Shi'a.


Mr. Sowell...

Your analysis of internal Iraqi politics is comprehensive and no doubt your knowledge of Iraq is extensive, but I wonder what your take would be on the following recent headline:

"The Iraqi parliament has approved a law allowing provinces to merge into regions which would enjoy a measure of autonomy."

Could this be the start of the partitioning of Iraq?

First, see my recent InBrief on this issue.

The question is going to be what kind of autonomy arrangement is approved, how much power will the autonomous regions have. SCIRI wants a large Shia autonomous region, others want smaller regions, some want none, but there is majority support for some sort of autonomy. Whether Iraq is partitioned or not will depend more on the maintenance of a political center in the national parliament and the continued empowerment of the army. The national army is already stronger than the Shia militias, and with time it will grow to be much stronger. So Iraq will fall apart only if there is such a lack of political will that the federal government can't hold the national army - the ISF - together.

If the center does fail, however, then the autonomy plan would make it easier to partition the country. But I believe that the causation runs differently than some others appear to - a complete breakdown between mainstream Shia and Sunnis could cause autonomy to turn into partition; autonomy itself will not cause the breakdown of the country.

Mr. Sowell...

I did read your InBrief on this matter. You tend to focus on the Sunni-Shia intanglements and perhaps they're more interesting. I, on the other hand, tend to focus on the Kurds which already have a semi-automomous region. I'm sure you know much more about the Kurds than I do, but I know they are just itching and waiting for the moment to break away. Of all the indigenous people in the world, the Kurds have inhabited the same region of this planet longer than any other native people without ever having a state including the Hebrews (prior to 1948)----a condition more of world affairs than desire. The Kurds will get their nation to the consternation of Turkey who are already fighting the militant Kurdish rebels in east Turkey.


You are certainly correct that the Kurds want independence. But there is a reason they haven't declared it, two actually. One, an independent Kurdish state would be entirely dependent upon Arab Iraqis in order to engage in any kind of foreign commence. Both Turkey and Iran are fighting Kurdish rebels and would go to war to stop it. The Syrian government doesn't even consider Kurds to be human beings, sort of like the Baath in Iraq. Oil you can't export isn't worth much, and so Arab Iraqi consent is required for any independent action.

The Kurds' autonomous existence has also been dependent on support from the U.S., support they would lose if they broke from Iraq. Personally I sympathize with the Kurds' plight, but maintaining Iraq is more important to both U.S. interests and the region.

Two, the fact that the Kurds are geographically split between Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq is a real problem. Life would get worse, not better, in the other countries for Kurds if there were a Kurdish state. They won't be able to support all those people if they flood the new state once their economic lifelines are cut off.

I think the bottom line is this: yes the Kurds have suffered a great deal, and yes they want independence. I would be very surprised if they get it, all the same.

Mr. Sowell...

Based on recent insurgent action in Iraq, you may have to update this piece a bit. In addition, there is much chatter regarding the following, "There are options under which the U.S.-trained Iraqi forces would overthrow struggling Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and replace him with a strongman who would restore order while Washington looks the other way." This is considered the most expedient scenario to delay the eventual partition of the country.

Oh, one last thing----you and others feel I am obsessed with Vietnam, which I do not deny, but then again even president Bush compared the current insurgent action in Iraq to the Tet offensive----could Bush be seeing the ghosts of Vietnam too??!! ...and if al-Maliki is overthrown, the analogy to Ngo Diem is uncanny to say the least.


I see no need to revise udate this article, although I do need to update on the overall situation. I'll do that when I can get to it, but here are my thoughts for now:

1) Recent ongoing is disturbing to say the least, but the details actually confirm the picture I paint in this article - the anti-al-Qaeda Sunni alliance has been formalized, and now they have an agreement with the Shi'a-led interior ministry of the Iraqi government. The problem is not lack of reconciliation among ordinary Iraqis, I'll discuss what I think the problem is in coming articles.

2) This idea that Maliki's government would be overthrown by the U.S. and replaced with a strongman is ridiculous. Variations on the theme have been floating around Iraq for the last three months, although in most versions it is the old Baathists who somehow do it. The violence in Baghdad is a mortal threat to Maliki's government, but the "strongman theory" is wishful thinking on behalf of local Arab rulers.

3) I don't know what is in the President's head in re to the Vietnam misanalogy, but the Tet offensive hardly fits, for a variety of reasons, one of them being that the low manpower level is due to a deliberate policy of keeping U.S. troop levels lower, while in Vietnam many were on leave.

More to come.

Mr. Sowell,

Based on the 20 Oct post of Blackspeare, what should the US and Coalition Nations do to prevent a coup? Should the US place conditions on it's military and economic support, ensuring that any would be strong man is well aware that he would be on his own if attempts were made to overthrow the current, albeit ineffective, Iraqi Government.

I have read about the prospect of a military overthrow in other places, but it was brought up in the Sunday political shows this weekend as a serious option to consider. While many would look forward to the removal of the current Iraqi Government because of it’s inability to disarm militias and blatant corruption.

My question is should the Bush Administration make it plain that the first result of a coup would be the complete and immediate withdrawal of US forces?