Former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi has been working toward a return to power since he left office in 2005. A Shi'ite and former Ba'athist, he has worked to establish relations with Sunni oppositionists, including former Ba'ath Party members. He began talking to insurgent leaders in 2005 and appears to have played a key role in establishing a line of communication between some insurgent groups and the Iraqi government.
Allawi is also courting Iraqi political parties and blocs, including the Sunni-led Iraqi Accordance Front (Al-Tawafuq), hoping they will join him in forming a non-sectarian national-salvation government. The former leader claims he has a plan to end sectarian violence that is supported by the United States, the United Kingdom, and regional Arab states.
Sunni Arab leader Salih al-Mutlaq told RFE/RL in a March 9 interview that there is broad support for Allawi's plan from al-Mutlaq's Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, Al-Tawafuq, Al-Fadilah, some supporters of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the Iraqi Turkoman Front, and minority Kurdish parties, as well as from Allawi's coalition, the Iraqi National List.
Allawi has said little publicly about his plans, but that may change in the coming days. President Jalal Talabani told reporters last week that Allawi was returning to Iraq and "will contribute, together with his natural and historical allies, to national and political action, as well as to addressing possible shortcomings through constitutional and parliamentary mechanisms."
Shi'ite Alliance Fraying
Shi'ite leaders are also engaged in efforts to rebrand their parties, and their actions come as both a response to internal rivalries and a recognition that al-Maliki's government is under threat and may not survive the next year.
For parties such as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which last week changed its name to the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), the rebranding is long overdue. Since its return to Iraq on the heels of the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, SCIRI has had difficulty competing with al-Sadr for support.
Al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army and SCIRI's Badr Organization competed for popular support in the wake of the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime, and al-Sadr won out, largely because he was viewed as a steadfast leader who never fled Iraq, even the Hussein government assassinated his father and brothers. SCIRI, on the other hand, could not overcome the characterization that it was Iranian-backed, having been established and supported by Tehran since 1982.
Though al-Sadr does not have a political party and has personally remained on the sidelines of politics, his supporters participated in the 2005 legislative elections, garnering 30 seats. Until recently, six of the cleric's supporters held cabinet positions. They resigned their posts in April to protest al-Maliki's refusal to set a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Iraq. At the time, al-Maliki said he "welcomed" the resignations, but the loss of the cleric's support -- he helped put al-Maliki in office -- may soon further erode al-Maliki's position.
Al-Sadr's ability to influence political events cannot be ignored. Although he has been in hiding for months and his whereabouts are disputed -- some say he fled to Iran ahead of the Baghdad security plan, while others contend he is hiding out in southern Iraq -- he was still able to rally tens of thousands in two Iraqi cities to demonstrate against the presence of the multinational forces on April 10, the fourth anniversary of Hussein's fall.
Now, al-Sadr appears poised to pull out of the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA). His withdrawal from the UIA, which includes SIIC and al-Maliki's Islamic Al-Da'wah Party, would significantly weaken the UIA's strength in parliament. Another Shi'ite party, Al-Fadilah, which draws its grassroots support from Al-Basrah, pulled out of the UIA in March because of internal Shi'ite disputes, taking 15 parliamentary seats with it. Should al-Sadr pull out, the UIA will be left with 83 seats in parliament, down from the 128 it won in the December 2005 election.
If he does withdraw, al-Sadr will have once again proven himself a shrewd politician. By distancing himself from al-Maliki, al-Sadr will have avoided association with an administration widely considered a failed project that is heavily tainted by U.S. influence.
Al-Sadr is also cleaning up his Imam Al-Mahdi Army, getting rid of rogue militiamen accused of violations against citizens and crimes against the Sunnis. In cleansing the Al-Mahdi Army of its criminal elements, al-Sadr can present the militia as a nationalist group fighting to restore Iraq's honor.
In an effort to highlight his Iraqi nationalist, antioccupation, antifederalist reputation, al-Sadr has also offered an olive branch to Sunni Arab leaders. Al-Anbar Awakening leader Hamid al-Hayis met with representatives of al-Sadr in Baghdad on May 22 to discuss steps toward ending Sunni-Shi'a discord and forging national reconciliation.
This is not the first time al-Sadr has tried to align himself with Sunni Arabs on a nationalist platform. He formed a close alliance with Muslim Scholars Association head Harith al-Dari in 2004, but relations have since frayed.
Al-Sadr has also sent his longtime representative Ahmad al-Shaybani to meet with Sunni leaders throughout the Middle East to seek their help in forging relations with Sunnis in Iraq, the "Washington Post" reported on May 20.
"We want to aim the guns against the occupation and Al-Qaeda, not between Iraqis," al-Shaybani said. A representative of the 1920 Revolution Brigades acknowledged that his group has had informal discussions with al-Sadr's representatives.
By presenting his movement as an alternative to Allawi, al-Sadr is appealing to the nationalist, anti-U.S. elements of Al-Tawafuq. Should al-Sadr find a way to align with Al-Tawafuq and Al-Fadilah, his alliance would outweigh the UIA in parliament by at least six votes. However, any alliance he forges with Al-Tawafuq would be short-lived, since the latter can only overlook the cleric's theological tendencies for so long. But as the saying goes, "The enemy of my enemy is my friend."
Al-Tawafuq's Position Strengthening
Al-Tawafuq threatened to leave the government earlier this month after front leaders said al-Maliki's administration was failing to meet its commitments toward constitutional reform, including de-Ba'athification.
Shi'ite and Kurdish leaders quickly tried to stave off a departure, and Talabani and al-Maliki assured Al-Tawafuq that they will establish mechanisms in the "coming phase" to bring the front into the decision-making process.
Meanwhile, Sunni Arab Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi told the London-based "Quds Press" this week that the option of setting up a new political front "continues to be on the back burner." Two days later, al-Hashimi's Iraqi Islamic Party cited him as saying the front has suspended -- but not canceled -- its threat to leave the government.
In addition to being able to offer a fair amount of parliamentary leverage -- the front has 44 seats -- Al-Tawafuq lends legitimacy to any alliance it joins because it is the main voice of Iraq's Sunni Arabs within the political process.
For the moment, it appears Al-Tawafuq is weighing its options, but some members have acknowledged the political landscape in Iraq must change. Front member Salim Abdallah al-Juburi told Al-Arabiyah television on May 18 that all of Iraq's political blocs "will be compelled to reorganize along nonsectarian lines" in the coming months.
But it is unclear how much time will pass before a change will come. "There is no agreement," al-Juburi said, "on the concept of national reconciliation," a key issue for the Sunnis. Whichever party they align with in the future must be able to present to them -- and guarantee -- a national-reconciliation plan that enshrines their rights and participation in any future governments.
Al-Sadr supporters demonstrating against the U.S. presence in Iraq in October 2006 (epa)
A RADICAL CLERIC. Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is a key figure in Iraq. He heads the Imam Al-Mahdi Army militia and a political bloc that is prominent in parliament and the government. His ties to Iran have also provoked concerns in some quarters.