- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 1, 2009


BAGHDAD (AP) — They once seemed to hold all the sway in Iraq: political rule of the crucial Shiite heartland, the backing of influential clerics and a foot in the government with ambitions to take full control.

But the days of wide-open horizons could be soon ending for Iraq’s biggest Shiite political machine, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, and replaced by important shifts in Iraq’s political momentum that could be welcomed in Washington and scorned in Tehran.

Setbacks for the Supreme Council would open space for wider political realignments by Iraq’s majority Shiites that could boost the U.S.-backed prime minister and leave Iran without a powerful channel for influence in Iraq.

The signs began to take shape Sunday with hints of the voter mood from provincial elections.

The broad message, built on Iraqi media projections and postelection interviews, was that the eventual results would punish religious-leaning factions blamed for stoking sectarian violence and reward secular parties seen capable of holding Iraq’s relative calm.

The outcome of the provincial races will not directly affect Iraq’s national policies or its balance between Washington’s global power and Iran’s regional muscle. But Shiite political trends are critically important in Iraq, where majority Shiites now hold sway after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated regime.

“There is a backlash from Iraqis against sectarian and religious politics,” said Mustafa al-Ani, an Iraqi political analyst based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

The Supreme Council could take a direct hit .

Although official results from Saturday’s voting are likely still days away, the early outlines are humbling for a group that had been considered a linchpin in Iraqi politics as a junior partner in the government and its near seamless political control in the Shiite south.

Now, some forecasts point to widespread losses across the main Shiite provinces. The blows possibly could include embarrassing stumbles in the key city of Basra and the spiritual center of Najaf, hailed as the future capital in the Supreme Council’s dreams for an autonomous Shiite enclave.

In their place, the big election winners appear to be allies of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, according to projections and interviews with political figures who spoke on condition of anonymity because official results are not posted.

It’s a vivid lesson in Iraq’s fluid politics.

A year ago, Mr. al-Maliki looked to be sinking. Shiite militiamen ruled cities such as Basra and parts of Baghdad and rockets were pouring into the protected Green Zone, which includes the U.S. Embassy, Iraq’s parliament and the prime minister’s office.

Mr. al-Maliki, with apparent little advance coordination with the U.S. military, struck back. An offensive broke the militia control in Basra and elsewhere in the south. His reputation was turned around.

And many voters appeared happy to reward his political backers in the elections for the provincial seats, which carry significant clout with authority over local business contracts, jobs and local security forces.

“Al-Maliki ended the militiamen’s reign of terror,” said Faisal Hamadi, 58, after voting in Basra. “For this he deserves our vote.”

The Supreme Council, meanwhile, appeared to be staggering under the weight of negative baggage.

It was accused of failing to deliver improvements to public services in the south. Also, its deep ties to Iran began to rub against Iraqis’ nationalist sentiments.

The Supreme Council’s leader, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, spent decades in Iran during Saddam’s rule and was allowed an office-villa in downtown Tehran. After Saddam’s fall, the Supreme Council was Iran’s main political conduit into Iraq even though the group also developed ties with Washington.

Iran now could face limits on its influence in the south with the Supreme Council forced into a coalition or second-tier status on the councils — and also confront resistance from a stronger al-Maliki government seeking to curb Iran’s inroads.

A Supreme Council lawmaker, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, acknowledged the election mood was against them. “We controlled most provinces in the south, so we were blamed for whatever went wrong there,” he said.

“The elections gave us an indication of what will happen in the general election late this year,” said Mr. al-Ani. “Those who lost in this election have nearly a year to learn their lesson and change their strategy. They know now where the Iraqis stand.”

Nationwide turnout in the election was 51 percent, said Faraj al-Haidari, chairman of the election commission. The figure fell short of some optimistic predictions but was overshadowed by a bigger achievement: no serious violence during the voting.

Turnout ranged from 40 percent in the Sunni-dominated Anbar province in western Iraq to 65 percent in the Salahuddin province, which includes the hometown of Saddam Hussein.

Final figures were not yet ready for the Baghdad area, but Mr. al-Haidari said initial reports placed it at about 40 percent. Some unconfirmed reports placed the turnout even lower in the northern city of Mosul, which is considered the last urban foothold for al Qaeda in Iraq.

The timing of the election also could have hurt the Supreme Council, falling at the beginning of a major Shiite religious pilgrimage that may have left some backers unable to vote.

After the election results are known, the deal-making begins. Again, the Supreme Council could be left in the cold.

The political-militia movement of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has indicated it may be willing to strike coalition deals with Mr. al-Makiki’s allies on the councils. It would be a starting turnabout.

Just last year, Mr. al-Sadr was denouncing the government as it joined American forces to dismantle his Mahdi Army’s main enclave in Baghdad.

“We have no red lines when it comes to al-Maliki’s coalition,” said Ayed al-Mayahi, Mr. al-Sadr’s chief representative in Basra. “We are looking ahead and will not be shackled by what happened in the past.”

Associated Press writers Sinan Salaheddin and Hamza Hendawi in Baghdad and Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Basra contributed to this report.

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