x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Alliance could keep al Maliki in power

The Iraqi prime minister could retain office, despite a narrow election victory for his rival.

BAGHDAD // A manual recount of votes in Baghdad yesterday confirmed a narrow election victory for Ayad Allawi's Iraqiyya group but the current prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, nevertheless seems on course to retain his office for another term.

The Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) said allegations of significant fraud in Baghdad, made by Mr al Maliki, had proven unfounded and apart from some minor adjustments, IHEC announced the results were effectively unchanged with Iraqiyya winning 91 seats, ahead of the State of Law alliance with 89 seats and the Iraqi National Alliance (INA) with 70 seats. Despite Iraqiyya's win, a post-election alliance between Mr al Maliki's State of Law and the INA has made them the most powerful force in parliament, only a few seats short of a governing majority in the 325-seat council.

Until yesterday it had seemed unlikely that Mr al Maliki would be chosen as the new alliance's candidate for prime minister, with the Sadrists, a major faction in INA, saying they would veto his election. However, that threat has now apparently been withdrawn, giving a significant boost to Mr Maliki's hopes of leading the country for another four years. "We have no veto over Mr al Maliki being chosen as prime minister and we can work with him, for the good of Iraq," said Bahar al Araje, a senior Sadrist, confirming statements made by Saleh al Obeidi, a spokesman for the group's leader, cleric Muqtada al Sadr.

As prime minister, Mr al Maliki led a successful military campaign against the Sadrists' militia, the Mahdi Army, imprisoning many of its followers and earning his place as one of their enemies. According to Mr al Araje, the Sadrists continue to harbour reservations about Mr al Maliki and he made it clear that, while the Sadr movement would not veto the prime minister's coveted reappointment, it may not give him its outright support.

"We still have criticisms of Mr al Maliki, including that he does not consult when he makes decisions, that he continues to detain followers of Muqtada al Sadr and that he has politicised the security forces," Mr Araje said. "While we will not veto him, and while we will continue in an alliance with the State of Law coalition, I do not expect Mr al Maliki to be prime minister again, It will be another candidate."

The Sadr movement indicated it had laid down conditions for ending its veto against Mr al Maliki, including that he release scores of detainees. That has not yet happened. While a major obstruction to Mr al Maliki's return as prime minister appears to have been removed, his position is far from certain. The State of Law/INA alliance has yet to name its leader, with a 14-member committee supposed to make the selection.

The prospect of Mr al Maliki retaining his position at the head of a grand Shiite alliance, largely the same as that which controlled the country from 2005, was greeted with dismay and predictions of a renewed civil war by Iraqiyya. "If the al Maliki-INA alliance comes together we will see a return to the problems of the past and to sectarian war," said Hani Ashour, an Iraqiyya official. "It will be a betrayal of Iraqi voters if the groups that did not win the election are returned to office as if they did. The election result does not give al Maliki a mandate to return as prime minister, the election was a mandate for new leadership."

Iraqiyya insists that it has the legal right to be asked to form the next government but, with only 91 of parliament's 325 seats, it cannot do so alone. Unless it is able to form an alliance more powerful than the 159-seat State of Law/INA bloc, Ayad Allawi seems destined to be sidelined. That could prove highly dangerous, with most of Iraq's Sunni Arabs throwing their support behind Iraqiyya. If they again feel excluded from government by a Shiite dominated alliance, a waning insurgency could be reignited.

"If al Maliki and the INA simply make the government, the supporters of Ayad Allawi believe the situation will collapse at any moment," Mr Ashour said. "If they try to exclude Iraqiyya from taking its part in governing the country, they will have brought civil war back to our doorstep." Although the Sadrist leadership appears to have ended its open hostility to Mr al Maliki, Muqtada al Sadr's followers seem far from convinced.

With the atmosphere in Iraq increasingly one of alarm at rising violence and recent deadly sectarian attacks, Sheikh Dhea al Shouki, a leading preacher at Kufa mosque, in the Sadrists' heartland, said he feared for the future. "I tell the Iraqi people to look out for themselves and to protect themselves because the coming situation will be one of sectarianism and interference in Iraq by neighbouring countries," he said in a telephone interview. "The Iraqi government is corrupt and the Iraqi army is not serving the people well."

A formal announcement of Iraq's election results is expected to take place today before they are sent to the Supreme Court for final ratification. It is likely to take more months before a government is finalised, with the State of Law/INA alliance trying to win the backing of the Kurdish bloc in order to gain a parliamentary majority. The Kurds are likely to seek guarantees on the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which they insist should be annexed to their independently administered area, as well as on their right to retain proceeds from oil exports. Mr Maliki and the Kurds have clashed over Kirkuk, and it remains unclear what form a deal on the city might take.