By Ahmed Ali
The performance of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) in the provincial elections has revived the party. It has sought to build provincial alliances with the Sadrists in order to marginalize Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. This could be a preview of alliance-building for the 2014 elections, and may be more likely if the Iranian government views this alliance as an opportunity to pressure Maliki. A strong performance by ISCI in 2014 will present an opportunity to other groups seeking to prevent a third Maliki term.
The Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) is a rising force in Iraqi politics. ISCI’s political fortunes declined after the 2009 provincial elections, diminishing its influence in Iraqi politics and particularly in the Iraqi Shi‘a political scene. The decline was compounded by the death of ISCI leader Abdul al-Aziz al-Hakim in 2009 and the 2012 split of its long-time military wing, the Badr Organization. However, the results of the 2013 provincial elections position ISCI as an energized competitor in the 2014 elections. ISCI’s post-elections strategy is characterized by putting aside its differences with erstwhile rivals, the Sadrists, in order to secure senior provincial posts at the expense of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. This has led to an increasingly public profile for ISCI’s leader Ammar al-Hakim, allowing him to reassert ISCI’s relevance. Moreover, the ISCI-Sadrist alliance is an indicator of Iraqi Shi‘a electoral alliance-building for 2014 and the role to be played by the Iranian government.
The Electoral Boost
Under the leadership of Ammar al-Hakim, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) competed within the Citizen’s Alliance (CA) in the 2013 elections. The CA included 21 groups, and ISCI is its most recognized component. The results validated ISCI’s campaign strategy, which was based on the concept of “My province First” and promoting local issues with promises to deliver services. The results made clear that ISCI improved its electoral position in the provinces in 2013. To be sure, ISCI also capitalized on anti-incumbent sentiments among voters. It is also possible that ISCI’s absence from any senior positions within the federal government helped it appear as non-corrupt. The prominent example of ISCI’s decision to remain out of the national government was the resignation of senior member Adel Abed al-Mahdi from the vice president position. Overall, ISCI also took full advantage of an experienced campaigning machine that was honed during previous elections.
ISCI added about 8 more seats to its total from the 2009 elections, increasing its total from 53 to about 61 seats. While this is not a significant increase, this outcome gave ISCI sufficient clout that, along with the Sadrists, it played a role in forming governments across southern Iraq. In many instances, this required marginalizing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law Alliance (SLA). Despite the fact that ISCI only won 6 seats in Baghdad out of 58, for example, ISCI worked with the Sadrists and the Iraqi Sunni Mutahidun (United) alliance to form the government and shut out the SLA from major positions. In Basra, ISCI struck an agreement with the SLA and gained the position of the governor with the appointment of governor Majed al-Nasrawi. The Sadrists also gained senior posts in Basra. This dynamic suggests that ISCI sought to work with the Sadrists, if possible, to marginalize the SLA while it behaved pragmatically in other provinces where it worked with the SLA. ISCI-Sadrist cooperation is also indicative of the two groups putting aside their differences and past clashes in order to maximize electoral gains.
There are early indications that this alliance could continue into the 2014 national elections. On July 8, Sadrist Member of Parliament (MP), Jawad al-Shihaili, claimed that there is a strategic agreement between ISCI, the Sadrists and other groups to form the next government. Furthermore, Sadrist parliamentary leader Baha al-Araji confirmed after a meeting with Ammar al-Hakim that an alliance between ISCI and the Sadrists is possible, and he announced that both sides reject changes to the voting system to make it a closed-list system. Shihaili’s statement was denied by ISCI Member of Parliament Ali Shubar. However, Shubar commented that commonalties between the two sides could result in such an alliance in the future. The Sadrist-friendly approach was reiterated by ISCI MP Abdu al-Hussein Abtan, who praised relations between ISCI and the Sadrists and stated that they are in constant discussions. Shubar’s denial, however, suggests ISCI’s desire to calculate other possibilities before deciding a course.
Leader of the Sadrist Trend Moqtada al-Sadr affirmed the significance of his alliance with ISCI when he stated on July 9 that the alliance is “strategic” and will not only cover politics. Sadr also indicated that the purpose of the alliance is to even the political scene and ensure that one party does not dominate. This was a clear reference to Maliki’s Da’wa party and indicates the anti-Maliki nature of the alliance. Sadr’s statement also sought to portray the alliance as a positive step for the Iraqi Shi‘a. This was important for Sadr to distance himself from any appearance that ISCI and the Sadrists are working against the unity of the Iraqi Shi‘a. Sadr ended the statement by expressing that this alliance can represent a new beginning between the two groups. The Sadr and Hakim families have had tensions in the past, and Sadrist and ISCI forces clashed in Karbala in August 2007. At that time, however, ISCI was still aligned with the Badr organization, its long-time military wing led by transportation minister, Hadi al-Amri. Those ties were broken when al-Amri split with ISCI in 2012, making some of these historical tensions less relevant.
In addition to the tangible political gains of seats and positions, ISCI’s electoral performance demonstrated that, for now, its historical ties to the Iranian government are not as damaging to its popularity with voters as they have been in previous elections. ISCI and Ammar al-Hakim had opposed the Iranian government’s support for a second Maliki term in 2010, but had to reconsider their stance and reconcile with the Iranian government thereafter. It is too early to tell whether Iraqi voter views towards ISCI’s Iranian connections will affect the 2014 elections. ISCI’s historical ties with the Iranian government are deep, and ISCI’s opponents may use them to tarnish the group.
The Rising Profile of Ammar al-Hakim
ISCI’s leader, Ammar al-Hakim, faced a variety of challenges following the August 2009 death of his father and prior ISCI leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim. He had to manage the aftermath of the 2010 national elections when ISCI won only 17 seats, losing about 50 seats in Parliament. Additionally, Hakim faced a difficult choice as ISCI’s military wing, the Badr organization, supported Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for a second term. ISCI openly opposed Maliki’s candidacy, despite the backing of the Iranian government for Maliki. Badr’s secretary general, Hadi al-Amri, received the position of transportation minister as a result of that deal. Hakim then had to contain the fallout of Badr splitting from ISCI in March 2012.
Hakim’s strategy to overcome these obstacles has proven adept, especially in keeping ISCI from falling apart. For example, in December 2011, ISCI formed the Knights of Hope Gathering (KHG) in order to provide grassroots support to ISCI in the wake of Badr’s departure. In addition, the KHG’s youthful orientation was an indication of outreach to a new generation, a theme that is prominent for ISCI. These steps in conjunction with ISCI’s survival and indeed favorable election results mean that Hakim is emerging as a player in Iraqi politics poised to take advantage of ISCI’s post-elections posture.
For example, on June 1, Hakim hosted a conference at ISCI’s Baghdad offices entitled “Iraq First” in an attempt to bring disagreeing parties together. Attendees included Maliki, his rival and Speaker of the Council of Representatives Osama al-Nujaifi, and other major political players. While the meeting was described as “symbolic,” it provided Hakim with the opportunity to appear as a statesman and allowed ISCI to appear as a party with clout and influence. Moreover, Hakim was the only one to give a speech during the conference. He urged attendees to cease negative media campaigns against each other and called for unity. Hakim additionally called for cooperation and dialogue to solve problems and ease tensions. Hakim was likely responding to the uptick in violence in April and May, which were the deadliest months in Iraq since June 2008, involving violence by Sunni and Shi‘a groups. Moreover, Hakim’s speech mentioned that “arms should exclusively be in the hands of the state.” This was likely a reference to the news of Iraqi Shi‘a militia reactivation in Baghdad and also the announcement by Iraqi Sunni tribes of the formation of the “Pride and Dignity” army.
Notably, Hakim stated that “the solution has to be an Iraqi solution and that any imported solution will only lead to more problems … among the sons of one nation.” Since Hakim assumed leadership of ISCI he has been attempting to minimize its connections to the Iranian government, which founded ISCI and provided it with funding and support. This is likely due to ISCI’s realization that Iraqi voters tend to view negatively political groups that have ties to the Iranian government. Hakim’s overall posture is intended to portray ISCI as an organization that is nationalist and unifying that puts Iraq as a first priority.
Hakim has also been reaching out to Iraqi tribes. On June 22, he hosted tribal leaders and praised their role in Iraqi society. The meeting was concluded by the signing of a “National Honor Document” to forbid the killing of Iraqis and call for national unity. The document reiterated the call for an Iraqi solution, not an outside solution. The implementation of the document is certainly not guaranteed and instead represents more of a symbolic step than one that will yield concrete results. Outreach to tribal leaders and figures is a common practice for Iraqi politicians; for Hakim, it helps establish him as a national figure that has convening authority.
ISCI and the Hawza
ISCI is also seeking to utilize its connections with the Shi‘a religious authorities in Iraq as part of its political strategy. It has adopted Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani as its Marja since 2007. This was an attempt to draw closer to the Najaf Hawza [Shi‘a religious school] where the Hakim family’s most prestigious figure, Ayatollah Mohammed Saeed al-Hakim, is a prominent member of the clergy. At the moment, ISCI is the closest Iraqi Shi‘a political party to the Najaf Hawza led by Sistani. The Sadrists, traditionally, have had contentious relations with Sistani.
ISCI’s proximity to the Hawza was on display as it hosted the Najaf conference for Hawza members known as Moblgheen, loosely translated into “those who inform,” The Moblgheen have the responsibility of conveying the Hawza’s stance to local communities through sermons and meetings. The July 4 conference witnessed the participation of 6,500 members and speeches conveyed on behalf of Ayatollahs Hakim, Ishaq Fayadh, and Bashir al-Najafi.
ISCI leader Ammar al-Hakim gave a speech in which he touched on spiritual and political issues. In the political section, he discussed the political symbolism of the “Iraq First” meeting he convened and Iraq's removal from U.N. Chapter VII. Hakim reiterated ISCI's commitment to keep its promises from the provincial elections. He also condemned attacks on Iraqi Shi‘a and called for better security procedures. This is further evidence of Hakim employing the stage to project an image of a statesman.
Ayatollahs Hakim and Najafi's speeches touched on spiritual issues, but also highlighted attacks on Iraqi Shi‘a civilians. Hakim described some of those attacks as "genocidal crimes" while Najafi's speech stated that the deterioration in security due to the lack of a firm official response has reached an "unbearable level." This statement is both supportive of the Iraqi Shi‘a community and a criticism of Maliki’s track record on security. The bi-annual conference appears to be ISCI’s vehicle to convey the message to the population that it is the only political Iraqi Shi‘a group with the support of the Najaf Hawza. In that vein, ISCI benefits from the high-profile participation of Ayatollahs Hakim, Najafi, and Fayadh in the conference.
It is notable that no speech was given on behalf of Najaf’s preeminent cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. He seems not to have had representation in past conferences, either, but it could mean that this normally quietest cleric has preferred to not associate himself with the political portion of the proceedings. Sistani's public stances are normally made known through his Karbala representatives, Ahmed al-Safi or Abed al-Mahdi al-Karbalaie, or during news conferences held by visitors to his Najaf home. However, Sistani's current anti-Maliki posture, as he reportedly refuses to meet with government officials, supports ISCI’s agenda.
ISCI as defender of the Shi‘a
Regional and domestic events will make it a difficult task for ISCI to maintain its current political strategy. Like other Iraqi Shi‘a groups, it has to respond to attacks likely carried out by al-Qaeda in Iraq against Iraqi Shi‘a. In a June 29 speech, Hakim described many of the attacks happening in Tuz Khurmatu as a targeted campaign against the Iraqi Shi‘a. He bemoaned that those attacks are not sufficiently condemned by other social groups in Iraq when they take place. To that end, ISCI critiqued government-formation in Diyala by the Sadrists and the Iraqi Sunni Mutahidun alliance. This is a surprising stance since ISCI formed the government in Baghdad that awarded Mutahidun the provincial council chairmanship. It likely relates to Diyala’s status as a province that continues to be on the fault line of sectarian violence and politics in Iraq.
Regionally, Hakim condemned the killing of Egyptian Shi‘a cleric Hassan Shahata in his June 29 speech and called on the Shi‘a in Egypt and worldwide to hold to their faith. ISCI also condemned the reported attack on the Shi‘a religious site of Hajar Bin Uday by Syrian opposition forces. To be certain, ISCI tried to strike a delicate balance with regards to these events by refraining from escalatory sectarian rhetoric. However, the perception remains that ISCI took these stances in order to burnish its credentials among the Iraqi Shi‘a.
For ISCI, the provincial elections and their aftermath represent a comeback. Since the 2010 elections, ISCI has been on the margins of Iraqi politics. ISCI will now face the test of delivering on its promises from the provincial elections or voters will punish it during the 2014 national elections. Both the Sadrists and Mutahidun view ISCI’s ascendance as an opportunity to counter Prime Minister Maliki and his ambitions. ISCI’s alliance with the Sadrists, Mutahidun, and potentially the Iraqi Kurds will provide enough Iraqi Shi‘a support in case Maliki and the SLA gain the highest number of votes and claim the mantra of Iraqi Shi‘a leadership and the right to form the government. If ISCI repeats its performance in the national elections, it will likely stake a claim for the Prime Minister position, as it may be viewed as a party offering a consensus candidate. For ISCI to achieve that goal, it will need support from the Iraqi Kurds. ISCI has enjoyed good relations with both major parties in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). But given that the balance of power currently favors the KDP and its leader, Iraqi Kurdistan president Masoud Barzani, ISCI may choose to court him and seek KDP support.
The current state of ISCI demonstrates that the political leadership of the Iraqi Shi‘a community is still undecided, despite the consolidation of power by Maliki in the last 7 years and the strong performance by the Sadrists in the 2010 elections. ISCI’s new role may also motivate the Iranian government to pressure ISCI into working within a pan-Shi‘a alliance. This occurred prior to the 2013 elections when the Iraqi Shi‘a parties formed an all-Shi‘a alliance to compete in Diyala and Salahaddin, mixed provinces where Iraqi Shi‘a solidarity was a priority for Shi‘a political groups including ISCI.
Iranian government movement towards ISCI is already evidenced by the July 3 meeting between Ammar al-Hakim and Iranian ambassador to Iraq Hasan Danafer. In the face of a likely future Iranian government push for an all-Iraqi-Shi‘a alliance, it is possible that ISCI and the Sadrists will push back against Iranian government attempts. This will become more feasible if the Iranian government chooses to use the ISCI-Sadrist alliance to weaken Maliki and make him more amenable to Iranian government pressure.
In light of its revival, Maliki may either choose to court ISCI or intimidate it to cooperate with him. ISCI has not traditionally been the target of pressure by the Iraqi Security Forces, but Maliki may opt to utilize this tool against ISCI if he chooses to intimidate it. It will be important to watch ISCI’s performance throughout this upcoming year. ISCI’s future choices will likely be guided by what it receives in return for its support, actions by the Iranian government, and Maliki’s outreach. For the moment, ISCI will avoid rushing into alliance-building decisions but will seek to ensure a lasting impact of its revival.
Ahmed Ali is an Iraq Research Analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.