More than seven months have passed since the national elections in Iraq on March 7. So far no government has been formed, and it is unlikely that one will emerge before year’s end, if at all. This election was touted by the United States as the vehicle that would produce an Iraqi government capable of unifying a divided nation, and in doing so provide a level of stability and security that would justify President Barack Obama’s decision to remove all combat troops from Iraq by August 2010. Instead, it has become clear that Iraq, some seven years after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein at the hands of a U.S.-led invasion, remains a deeply fractured country unable to produce a democratically elected central government capable of bringing the nation together. This ongoing political paralysis paves the way for the resurgence of both major sectarian fighting and an anti-government insurgency that would severely erode whatever limited progress Iraq has made in the post-Saddam era.

That the March 2010 election in Iraq produced such an inconclusive result should not have come as a surprise to anyone. The foundation upon which this election was constructed was unsound both in form and substance. While Iraq possessed an elected parliament under Saddam Hussein, the lack of any viable opposition to the one-party rule of the Baathists made elections a strictly pro forma exercise whose outcome was preordained by the powers that were. Political power under Saddam was dependent upon tribal relationships with the president’s family, and the political machinations of the president and his inner circle. Baath Party membership was a prerequisite, which had less to do with ideology to a cause than loyalty to the president. The president was the state, and state institutions became, by extension, a commodity carefully doled out by the president as a means of rewarding loyalty and maintaining political balance. While inefficient and undesirable from a democratic perspective, the system of government under Saddam Hussein possessed both a discipline and predictability that provided a foundation of consistency and reliability that is lacking in Iraq today.

The overthrow of Saddam and the Baathist Party in 2003 left Iraq as a nation bereft of not only any basic framework of government, but, more important, any unifying leadership. While logic dictated that the soundest course of action would have been to preserve the existing governmental institutions that had existed under Saddam, especially those dealing with security, and install a new leadership dedicated to reforming these institutions from within, the U.S. occupation authority, known as the Coalition Provisional Authority (or CPA, headed by Paul Bremer), chose instead to eradicate any institution or agency formally associated with Saddam or the Baathist Party. The CPA then simultaneously inserted a new governmental authority required to not only confront the formidable task of governing a nation torn by decades of conflict, but to do so while building new institutions from the ground up. The end result was a virtual collapse of centralized government in Iraq and the outbreak of chaos and anarchy, which manifested as a growing resistance to the U.S.-led occupation, in turn thrusting the American military into a nation-building role it neither wanted nor was prepared to execute. This process, involving the formation of an interim government and constitution that oversaw the preparations and conduct of national elections in January 2005, failed to produce either viable Iraqi governmental institutions or the requisite supporting social and legal frameworks necessary for any government to succeed. As such, successive Iraqi governments and elections, including the recently concluded March 2010 elections, have been deeply flawed.

One of the primary criticisms of the January 2005 election, and that which followed in December 2005, is that it made use of a “closed list” system of voting that saw the people of Iraq able to vote only for political parties that had been positively vetted by the CPA. These parties, in turn, designated a slate of candidates. The election was not about the individuals, but rather the parties, and it was up to the parties to designate which candidates would fill the allocated seats. This system of closed lists was insisted upon by the Shiite-dominated parties, and agreed to by the Iraqi Kurdish parties, as the best mechanism available to assure themselves of attaining political control of post-Saddam Iraq following decades of domination at the hands of the Iraqi Sunni minority. Through this system, the Shiites won a majority of seats in the provisional parliament that emerged following the January 2005 election, and took control of the process of crafting a new Iraqi constitution and election law, which again made use of the closed list system of voting in the December 2005 election that produced Iraq’s first constitutionally elected prime minister of the post-Saddam era.

The closed system of voting, while successful in securing political power for the Shiites and the Kurds, failed in its effort to elect an individual capable of running the nation of Iraq. In 2005, the Shiites of Iraq were split into three major competing political constituencies — the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI (an Iranian-backed anti-Saddam movement), the Islamic Dawa Party (a Shiite fundamentalist movement formed in the late 1950s that violently opposed Saddam Hussein), and the Sadrist movement (composed of Shiite backers of Moqtada al-Sadr, an Iraqi cleric from a distinguished Shiite religious family, who resisted Saddam Hussein’s rule from within the country). All three were encouraged by the premier Shiite religious leader in Iraq, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, to cooperate with one another to achieve the goal of Shiite political dominance. It was Sistani who had insisted on holding the elections in January 2005, and for these elections to be conducted using the closed list system. The Shiite coalition prevailed in the elections, and it was widely assumed that the political head of SCIRI, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, would become prime minister. But Hakim refused the post, believing he could exercise more power from outside government than within, and the job instead went to the leader of the Islamic Dawa Party, Ibrahim Jaafari. Thus, from its infancy, the post-Saddam Iraqi government was undermined by weak central leadership susceptible to outside influence. Jaafari replaced the interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, who owed his political power more to his former associations with Western intelligence services (the CIA and MI-6) than any popularity engendered among the Iraqi people. Allawi, as the head of the foreign intelligence-funded Iraqi National Alliance (INA), carried out anti-Saddam activities including the planning and implementation of a failed coup attempt in June 1996. It is this status as an anti-Saddam leader that the CPA believed would give Allawi credibility as an Iraqi political figure. But Allawi’s tenure as Iraqi prime minister was contentious, with resistance to the ongoing U.S.-led occupation of Iraq rapidly escalating. Under Allawi, Iraq supported several major American military operations, including two, against the Sunni stronghold of Fallujah and the Shiite religious center of Najaf, which proved to be extremely controversial among the Iraqi people given the level of violence inflicted upon the local populations. Allawi’s Iraqi National Accord Party fared poorly in the January 2005 election, and Allawi was replaced by Jaafari in April 2005. Allawi’s Iraq National Accord did even worse in the December 2005 elections, and while his party participated in the unity government that was formed from that election, Allawi himself did not take a seat in Parliament.

Ibrahim Jaafari was, at the time of his selection as prime minister, the leader of the Islamic Dawa Party, which was founded for the purpose of promoting Islamic rule in Iraq. In the 1970s the Dawa Party began waging an armed struggle against Saddam Hussein’s regime, leading to a violent crackdown against Dawa that drove Jaafari and others into exile. Jaafari left Iraq for Iran in 1980, where he represented the Dawa Party and where, in 1983, he brought the Dawa Party into the fold of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), an umbrella group of anti-Saddam Shiites who made common cause with Iran in its war against Iraq. Dawa by that time had been severely weakened in its fight with Saddam Hussein’s regime, and Jaafari found both himself and his party politically subordinated to Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, the leader of SCIRI.

The Dawa-SCIRI relationship was strained over SCIRI’s close relationship with Iran. With Iran’s strong support, SCIRI became the dominant Iraqi Shiite military and political force confronting Saddam Hussein, and when the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003, forcing Saddam out of power, SCIRI, headed by Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim and his brother, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim (who headed the military wing of SCIRI, known as the Badr organization), became the dominant political force in Iraq. When Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim was assassinated in August 2003, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim took over as the head of SCIRI. But Abdul Aziz al-Hakim was more interested in cementing his role as the political leader of Iraq’s Shiites than he was in solving the myriad problems the country faced. His decision to allow Jaafari to become prime minister allowed the Shiites to continue to lead Iraq, but deflected any fault in the governance of Iraq away from SCIRI and onto its political rival, Dawa.

Hakim’s political maneuvering proved to be a dual-edged sword. Jaafari, a compromise leader weakened by a growing sectarian conflict and ongoing anti-U.S. insurgency, was never able to effectively govern, ran afoul of the U.S. government over charges of ineffective leadership and was forced to step down from office. Nouri al-Maliki, who at the time served as the deputy Iraqi prime minister, assumed his position by default, replacing Ibrahim al-Jaafari in April 2006. Malaki, like Jaafari, was a senior member of the Islamic Dawa Party. From 1979 until the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, he had helped organize Dawa’s guerrilla war against Saddam Hussein from exile in Syria (1979-1982 and 1990-2003) and Iran (1982-1990).

Jaafari’s ouster as prime minister reinforced Hakim’s astute observation that the prime minister’s office was a political minefield. But it also paved the way for a new post-Saddam political constituency, this time under the leadership of Nouri al-Maliki. Prior to being selected as prime minister, Maliki was a little-known political figure whose primary reputation had been derived from overseeing the de-Baathification efforts of the Jaafari government. The United States made common cause with Maliki’s government in cracking down on the Sunni-based insurgency, something that helped cement his reputation as being prejudiced against the Iraqi Sunni community, and elevated his status among many, but not all, in the Iraqi Shiite community. In an effort to consolidate his political power, Nouri al-Maliki confronted Moqtada al-Sadr, who headed a powerful Shiite militia, the Mahdi Army, which openly challenged both the ongoing U.S.-led occupation of Iraq as well as the American-allied Iraqi security forces directed by Maliki. Maliki’s Iraqi constituency is derived more from his status as a U.S.-backed authority, and the power that brings, than any grass-roots draw among the population.

It was the “surge” of American combat power in 2006-2007, more than anything else, that established Maliki’s authority to govern. This authority has been openly challenged by Sadr, who insists that Iraq be governed by Iraqis who are free of outside influence. Sadr’s Mahdi Army engaged in open conflict with U.S. occupation forces and the Iraqi Army in 2004, and again in 2006. A ceasefire prompted by the U.S. surge of military forces in 2007 led to the demobilization of much of the Mahdi Army, but, in 2008, open conflict again erupted when Maliki ordered his forces to confront and dismantle the Mahdi Army. The near-civil war that erupted as a result created fissures from within the Shiite political coalition that had won the 2005 elections.

In an effort to secure the continuation of Shiite-dominated rule, Ayatollah Ali Sistani called for a change in Iraq’s election laws, replacing the closed list ballots of the past with a new open list system that empowered the electorate to vote for individuals rather than political parties. In this way, a political figure like Maliki could remain viable even though his political coalition was not. But the open list system turned out to be a debacle. The required new Iraqi election laws were not passed by Parliament until November 2009, delaying the election until March 2010. The emergence of numerous new political parties only confused an Iraqi electorate still new to the concept of national elections. The March 2010 election not only failed to produce an outright winner, but created the conditions in which a viable coalition government was virtually impossible to form.The 2008 fighting between the Iraqi army and the Mahdi Army widened the existing fissure between Maliki and Sadr, and prompted Sadr to change his approach toward politics in Iraq, shifting away from militant conflict and toward obtaining broad electoral legitimacy. While avoiding direct military confrontation with both the U.S. military and the Iraqi army, Sadr continued to condemn the ongoing U.S.-led occupation of Iraq as well as the government of Nouri al-Maliki, which Sadr characterized as an extension of the occupation. Sadr understood that if he were ever to be able to mount a successful challenge to an Iraqi government that derived its power from the U.S. occupation, he would have to do so from outside the existing political system. While he continued to participate within the Iraqi government by proxy, with his party holding enough seats in the Iraqi Parliament to influence legislation, Sadr himself withdrew to Iran, where he began intense religious studies at a Shiite seminary, or hawza, in the holy city of Qom. Sadr’s goal is to complete his studies and obtain the religious rank of ayatollah, thereby positioning himself to succeed the aging Ayatollah Ali Sistani as the senior-most Shiite religious authority, not only in Iraq but the entire Shiite world.

Sadr understands only too well the importance of religion in Iraq today, especially among the Shiites who make up some 60 percent of the population. While many in the West view Nouri al-Maliki and the Iraqi government he heads as the ultimate authority in Iraq, the reality is that nothing of significance emerges from that government, whether relating to security or Iraqi oil contracts, without the support and blessing of Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Sistani has long favored religious authorities taking a behind-the-scenes approach toward politics, known as “quietism.” This approach differs starkly from the active, often militant, approach taken by not only Moqtada al-Sadr, but also SCIRI, which under the leadership of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim was more sympathetic to the Vilayet i-Faqih (governance of the supreme jurisprudence) philosophies of Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, a concept that Sistani remains vehemently opposed to.

Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, whose father had been a senior Shiite leader, was positioning himself to be the heir apparent to Sistani. His death from cancer in 2009 created a huge leadership gap among not only SCIRI, but also the Iraqi Shiites. His son, Ammar al-Hakim, took over as the political head of SCIRI (renamed in 2007 as the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, or SIIC). Ammar, however, lacks both the personality and background of his father, and the influence of the SIIC has waned under his leadership. In 2009 SIIC joined with the Sadrists and others to create a coalition party, the National Iraqi Alliance. The National Iraqi Alliance was headed not by Ammar al-Hakim, but rather former Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari, who left the Dawa Party. Sadr, sequestered in Iran for his religious studies, did not directly participate in the National Iraqi Alliance, choosing to let his subordinates assume that role. In the March 2010 elections, the National Iraqi Alliance won 70 seats, making it a critical force in the creation of any coalition government which may yet emerge. It is this ability to influence the future course of political affairs in Iraq that has earned Moqtada al-Sadr the title of kingmaker. But such a notion is shortsighted. Sadr doesn’t simply want to influence Iraqi politics — he wants to dominate, and he will do so in a fashion that will make him more “king” than any prime minister the National Iraqi Alliance might assist in elevating to temporary political office.

The selection of Ibrahim Jaafari as the head of the National Iraqi Alliance reflects not only the declining political influence of Ammar al-Hakim and SIIC, but also the growing importance of religious-based political ideology in the future politics of Iraq. SIIC has gravitated away from the Iranian-influenced philosophy of “rule of the supreme jurisprudent,” and toward the quietism of Ali Sistani, diminishing its activism role. Jaafari, on the other hand, as the former head of the Dawa Party, continues to embrace a political ideology derived from the teachings of one of Dawa’s founders, Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, who professed a philosophy known as Vilayet al-Ummah, or “governance of the people.” Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, the father-in-law of Moqtada al-Sadr, had initiated the exploration of “governance of the people” as a theological-political ideology, but had not finalized it prior to his execution at the hands of Saddam Hussein in 1980.

Despite his untimely death, the basic constructs of Baqir al-Sadr’s political theory were clear: The legitimacy of an Islamic government comes from the people, not the clerics. Islamic government represents the blending of the people, who are God’s trustees on earth, and the prophets, who are God’s witnesses. The lineage of those who bear witness to God’s word is, in the Shiite faith, traced from the Prophet, to the imams who constituted a direct continuation of the Prophet, and then to the Marja, or religious authorities. While the witness lineage remained intact, Islamic governance would be conducted under its sole auspices. However, since most Shiites believe that the line of the imams terminated during the time of the 12th imam, the concept of governance by those who bear direct witness to God’s word has likewise been broken. As such, according to Baqir al-Sadr, the role of governance has been divided so that the trustees of God’s word, i.e. the people, are directly responsible for government, while the witnesses, or Marja, would supervise the Muslim faith. As such, Baqir al-Sadr was a fervent believer in direct democratic elections of a government by the people to be governed. Baqir al-Sadr died before he could finish his concepts on the role of the Marja in “governance of the people,” but based upon his writings, it is believed that he viewed the Marja’s role as being limited to protecting any deviations from religious doctrine that would threaten the Muslim ideology. While Sadr had served as an influential cleric in Baghdad during and after Saddam’s rule, his influence was limited to conventional political affairs, since he lacked the formal religious education necessary to issue fatwas, or religious edicts. Sadr has the benefit of learning from historical precedent in terms of how to pursue his religious training. When the Ayatollah Khomeini died in Iran, he chose as his successor Ali Khamenei, a Shiite cleric who lacked the formal religious training to legitimately serve as a Marja, or jurisprudent. As such, Khamenei’s role as “supreme jurisprudent” was significantly diminished, as was his viability as a political leader. Khamenei’s supporters rushed the Iranian leader through a crash course in Shiite theology, allowing Khamenei to assume the title of ayatollah, and with it the position of supreme jurisprudent. But many Shiite religious authorities do not recognize Khamenei’s position, and his effectiveness as a leader has suffered as a result.

Moqtada al-Sadr understands the importance of legitimacy when it comes to positioning himself as a religious authority capable of challenging Ali Sistani. The decision by Sadr to call for a “people’s referendum” following the inconclusive results of the March 2010 elections underscores the fact that he has embraced the “governance of the people” ideology of his father-in-law. As such, Sadr can afford to remain in Qom, deep in his studies, while the issues of governance are worked out by his “trustees,” in this case Ibrahim Jaafari and others. Sadr will continue to study in an effort to finish his father-in-law’s work, namely the matter of defining the role of the Marja in overseeing the state of religion in a government elected by the people. While normally the path to ayatollah rank is a long one, the fact that Sadr is working off a foundation of religious study inherited from his father-in-law will help to hasten the process. It also allows Sadr the flexibility to decide when he is ready to assume his role as a religious leader. Unlike political leaders, who are held hostage by events out of their control, Sadr alone will be able to pick the time of his emergence. There is little doubt that this emergence will be done in a manner and time that maximize the political benefit to Sadr.

Unlike Moqtada al-Sadr, who has cultivated an image as being in union with the people of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki has sought to foster the image of a law-and-order Iraqi politician. Backed up by American military, political and financial resources, Maliki was able to cobble together the illusion of a functioning government presiding over a stable nation. But this was only an illusion — the U.S.-led surge did little to resolve the underlying causes of the insurgency in Iraq, and the Iraqi government was beset with internal sectarian squabbles and rampant corruption that made the normal functions of governance impossible. In the Sunni-dominated regions of Iraq, the U.S. backed the formation of local Sunni militias, which, in exchange for a promise of greater political autonomy, agreed to assist the American military in the suppression of fundamentalist Islamic organizations such as Al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI). This empowerment of the Sunnis made the Shiite-dominated government of Maliki nervous, and the stability achieved by the U.S.-brokered security arrangement with the Sunnis began to unravel as Maliki demanded that the Sunni militias disband and security be turned over to the Shiite-dominated Iraqi security services.

It is this estrangement between Maliki and the Sunni that created the political opportunity for the re-emergence of Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite who has allied with the disenfranchised Sunnis of Iraq. But both Maliki and Allawi are artificial constructs, neither deriving his position from the legitimate will of the Iraqi people. The reality is that the Iraqi democratic experiment, as manifested in the March 2010 elections, has failed. It is highly unlikely that a consensus-based unity government will be formed in the aftermath of the election, which saw no single party able to win enough seats to form a majority government.

Maliki and Allawi are both not only byproducts of the failure of Iraqi governance in the post-Saddam era, but the leading architects of this failure. Given the imperfect nature of Iraqi electoral processes, neither Allawi nor Maliki can claim his leadership to be reflective of the true will of the Iraqi people, and their current status only underscores the fragile nature of Iraq’s imperfect democratic institutions. There is little likelihood of a viable Iraqi government emerging from the debacle of the March 2010 election. As Maliki and Allawi squared off over their battle for the office of prime minister, their respective coalitions began to fracture and dissolve. Already there has been a decided spike in the level of sectarian violence not only in Iraq overall, but more ominously in Baghdad itself. The Sunnis who supported Allawi are divorcing themselves from the political process, choosing instead to return to the path of insurgency, raising the specter of renewed sectarian fighting. Maliki’s reputation of being the law-and-order leader of Iraq is likewise being tarnished by the new violence.

The inability of the Iraqi security forces to bring this violence under control (and there is no reason to be optimistic that they will ever be able to do so) is placing tremendous pressure on the United States. The deadline set by the Status of Forces Agreement signed between the United States and Iraq in December 2008 (during the Bush administration) requires all U.S. military forces to be withdrawn from Iraq by the end of 2011. While the level of violence is escalating in Iraq on a daily basis, it is unlikely that there will be any major outbreak of sectarian fighting until the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces has been accomplished. But Maliki and the United States are reaping what they sowed when they certified the surge of 2007 as a major success.The surge accomplished nothing of substance. The Sunni insurgency is reforming, armed and trained by the United States over the past three years and operating with a political and financial base of support from Syria and Saudi Arabia, respectively. Despite the much-heralded killing of Abu Musab al-Zaqarwi in 2006, al-Qaida in Iraq has proved to be a resilient foe that has never been truly defeated. The Kurdish Peshmerg has never disarmed or disbanded, but rather serves as a de facto independent military force backed by the newly found oil wealth of Iraqi Kurdistan. The Badr Brigade continues to operate, either as an independent militia or morphed into one of the various “official” security services which exist in Iraq today. And Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army likewise waits in the shadows, a large and viable force that can switch from political activism to militancy overnight. All sides are preparing for open warfare once the withdrawal of American forces is complete. The Iraqi army exists in name only. Once a major outbreak of sectarian fighting commences, it is highly likely the security services Washington is relying upon to hold Iraq together will themselves dissolve, breaking apart along ethnic and religious lines.

The principal beneficiary from the political collapse of Maliki and Allawi will be the Iraqi National Alliance. Moqtada al-Sadr has reached out to the Sunnis of Iraq in the past, most notably in 2004 when he sent his fighters and supplies to assist in the battle for Fallujah. There is every reason to believe Sadr will continue to reach out to the Sunnis as they lose faith in Ayyad Allawi’s ability to deliver any discernable political result. Maliki’s coalition is heavy with secular-minded Shiites who reject the kind of heavy-handed form of Islamic government that had been the mainstay of SCIRI and Hakim, but who very well might rally around the more subtle approach that seems to be the trademark of Sadr’s “governance of the people.” Of equal importance, at a time when the interference of outside parties in the internal affairs of Iraq has manifested itself in growing resentment for those, like Maliki and Allawi, who are seen as the proxies of foreign interests, someone like Sadr, who is a true product of the Iraqi people, will have a viability that the others lack. Sadr is a reality that three of Iraq’s neighbors — Iran, Turkey and Syria — recognize and, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, embrace. Of all the political figures who factor in Iraq’s future, only Moqtada al-Sadr possesses the combination of domestic and regional support that will allow him to assume a leadership role. The fact that this role will be indirect, via the Shiite Marja he hopes to lead, only makes him more of a political threat to those who are opposed to him, since he will be largely immune from the vagaries of secular politics that are the bane of politicians everywhere.

While it is impossible to predict with any degree of certainty what the political landscape of Iraq will look like in the coming weeks, months and even years, what is clear is that those who currently aspire to run the Iraqi government will most probably not be in power. The future of Iraqi politics will more than likely be constructed around a new Iraqi government authority, one dominated by a newly anointed Ayatollah Moqtada al-Sadr and his completed ideology of “governance of the people.” As demonstrated by his willingness to explore potential political partnerships with both Allawi and Maliki, Sadr has positioned himself as both a peacemaker and deal breaker.

But the reality is that even Moqtada al-Sadr cannot stop the looming violence in Iraq. Instead, he will distance himself from both the violence and those who will lead it, and maneuver to be a force of reconciliation. In this, he will be assisted by the governments of Turkey, Syria and Iran, which have stepped into the void of regional problem-solving created when the Bush administration embraced the military surge, rather than the alternatives offered by the Baker-Hamilton Report, which endorsed American diplomatic outreach to both Syria and Iran. Neither Islamic revolution nor nationalist dictatorship, a Sadr-dominated Iraq would come as close to constituting a legitimate democracy as one could hope for in a land beset with so many difficulties, if only given a chance. Moqtada al-Sadr’s role as an Iraqi kingmaker goes beyond the politics of the moment. Whether or not he can survive the looming civil war in Iraq, or the Machiavellian posturing of his numerous detractors, is yet to be seen, but one thing is certain: Short of killing the king, Sadr is, and will continue to be, the principal player in Iraq for many years to come.

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