The recent coalition between Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and an anti-American Shia radical group signals two things in the briar patch of Iraqi politics: The first is that nascent infighting among those same Shia could arrest the progress of Iraqi stability and pave the way for more Iranian influence. The second is the possibility of a Sunni refusal to trust Maliki, which would only open the door for more radical elements on their side as well.
With the support of the pious and portly Muqtada al-Sadr, Maliki is probably looking at another term in office. This has broken a deadlock in Iraqi politics, but the anatomy of this particular alliance is tenuous and foreboding.
In general, one can’t analyze the Iraqi government without considering political Islam in all its vague shades. Maliki, let’s not forget, is a member of the Islamic Dawa Party, which paints itself as a moderate and progressive force of Iraqi federalism, despite having goals that are still overtly Islamist. One can never be sure of the exact definition of “democracy” when that word is wielded in places like Iraq.
What’s more, the Sadrists personify the sectarian violence against which Maliki claims to stand. Their leader is a rabid cleric who heads the Mahdi Army, which since 2003 has led a ferocious campaign against U.S. and Iraqi forces. Sadr is only begrudgingly standing behind Maliki, whom he fiercely opposed until very recently.
Maliki has assured Iraqis that, without him, sectarian violence would increase. Until recently, he resisted attempts to curtail his authority, claiming strong leadership is necessary to keep Iraq together in the wake of the withdrawal of American combat troops. Indeed, one of his main claims has been that his post is inherently lacking in power.
Meanwhile, sectarian violence shows no signs of abatement. This year, attacks in the south increased, killing 67 Iraqis and injuring nearly 300 in 10 separate incidents. A senior U.S. military commander, Major General Vincent Brooks, said he believed that militias loyal to Sadr were responsible.
This leads one to speculate how long the Sadr-Maliki alliance will last. I’m guessing not very long, since Sadr’s group has also been responsible for violence against Sunnis, and the latter will therefore be hesitant to respond to Maliki’s calls to build a broader coalition government that includes them. As Maliki tries harder to court Sunnis, Sadr will grow impatient.
Other variables include the extent to which Iranian influence will pollute any real progress in rebuilding Iraq and quelling the insurgency. The Sadrists, for instance, admit they backed Maliki under Iranian pressure. Many in the Sadrist camp remain opposed to Maliki, who has mounted campaigns against the Mahdi Army, and this infighting could empower the Sunnis. Iranian encroachment would indeed further splinter any Shia coalition, especially since Ayad Allawi, a Shia and former prime minister, wants Iran to stay out of Iraqi affairs.
It’s both painful and obvious that these Sunni and Shia (and Kurdish) divisions pervade every parliamentary decision. Nowhere in this revolting stew of religiosity and tribalism is there any discernible idea of how Iraq will build itself into a modern democratic state. If Maliki wants to create a broad coalition government, he first must realize that radicals like the Sadrists will always oppose it. They want the Iraqi people to be divided, not united.