By Dr Joseph Kechichian
When Muntadhar Al Zaidi, a reporter for the Cairo-based satellite channel Al Baghdadiyyah Television, hurled his shoes at President George W. Bush during a news conference, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki, who was next to Bush, barely flinched. Unlike the American President, however, Maliki drew the right lessons. Will he now manage to build on his most recent success or will he negate positive gains?
Although final results are not in as these lines are written, it looks that the late January provincial elections across 14 provinces produced a significant victory for Prime Minister Maliki, weakening traditional religious parties. Even proponents of loose federalism saw their fortunes wane.
Remarkably, Iraqi voters understood that the heretofore gargantuan American influence over Iraq was rapidly vanishing, which required them to usher in politicians who favored accelerated withdrawal. Local candidates who ran on the premise that Iraq would be better off relying on itself, perhaps through a stronger centralized government, fared better than those who stood for federalism or even pro-Iranian religious alliances.
Within the Shia communities, pro-Maliki candidates triumphed over groups like the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, led by the influential Abdul Aziz Hakim, or the Sadrist Movement, which followed the guidance of soon-to-be Ayatollah Moqtada Al Sadr. Both men were relatively discreet throughout the final few weeks of the campaign, perhaps reading the popular mood accurately.
Both of these post-Saddam-Hussein-powerhouse parties lost ground to Maliki?s pro-Iraq emphasis, which literally translated in a far stronger central government than anyone fathomed, and that will augur well on a certain level.
Yet, and it is critical to underline this point, four Kurdish provinces did not participate in these elections and it is critical to assess their potential interpretations of these preliminary results.
In several hurried evaluations, Western observers have concluded that the main losers of provincial council elections were Kurdish parties that did not join in, and which ?had benefited from a massive Arab boycott in the previous elections in 2005.?
According to a British commentator, ?Mosul?s politics are [apparently] dominated by Arab-Kurdish rivalry over the future of Nineveh, its surrounding province,? and that these elections were ?a signal that Arabs [were] determined to resist any part of it joining the three Kurdish provinces of the north.?
Another reporter asserted that the Arabs in Nineveh were ?widely expected to win a comfortable majority,? which would allow them ?to appoint a governor and use their political power to roll back Kurdish expansion.?
Indeed, such political rivalries in Baghdad as well as in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish autonomous region, will tip the balance of power, but to what end?
It may be useful to recall that Prime Minister Maliki failed to fully extend central government over Nineveh, which meant whatever funds were allocated for projects in Mosul and other cities arrived, if at all, heavily mortgaged.
Consequently, a noticeable duality emerged competing for both local authority, as well as local loyalties. How Baghdad perceived its role vis-?-vis Kurdish parties that enjoyed significant support was telling.
In fact, it may be accurate to summarize that Mosul and Nineveh as a whole, and the Kurdish provinces proper, were not on Baghdad?s priority list, with large sums of monies allocated for reconstruction projects literally vanishing without as much as an investigation to help locate who pocketed millions of Dinars.
Moreover, poor security led to an unstable environment, which translated into violence at all levels. Several assassinations remained unresolved and were unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.
With a significant lapse in what occurred in Nineveh, and what did not elsewhere in the Kurdish provinces, the Prime Minister may be led to perceive these results as mere vindication.
That would be a mistaken reading, for inasmuch as improved security is a collective reward, it behooves Maliki to ascertain whether he can accommodate all of Iraq and not just portions of it. His undeniable victory was predicated by the logic of withdrawal, and it is extremely important for his government not to reach the wrong conclusion, as Iraq is not a secular state.
Maliki should not fall into the trap that more secular parties won the day and that tribal leaders and former resistance fighters, along with religious groups, lost out more or less on a permanent basis.
These results might tell the entire story and the warning should be clear: Iraq is a deeply religious country, both on individual as well as social grounds, which can only be ignored at one?s peril.
While it is correct to surmise that in the short-term fundamentalist groups lost, over the long-term, it behooves Nouri Al Maliki to remember that Al Zaidi?s shoes were also hurled in his direction. His challenge is to quickly translate the accomplishments of this plebiscite into a wider political agenda.
Towards that end, a modus vivendi with Kurdish parties must be found, to slow down secessionist sentiments among a dynamic sector of the population that perceives Baghdad as a source of instability rather than a basis of self-respect and democratization.
Source: SOMA: An Iraqi-Kurdish Digest, February 2009
*Dr Kechichian is an expert in Gulf Arab affairs and author of several books.