Competition Between Iraqi Shiites Gains Strength

Tribal Support Council Election i

Iraqis vote in an election for a Tribal Support Council in the East Doura district of Baghdad on March 6. The councils reflect the ethnic makeup of a neighborhood and act as a local government. Spencer Platt/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Tribal Support Council Election

Iraqis vote in an election for a Tribal Support Council in the East Doura district of Baghdad on March 6. The councils reflect the ethnic makeup of a neighborhood and act as a local government.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

In Iraq, two of the country's main Shiite political parties are locked in a bitter struggle ahead of provincial elections set for early next year.

Dawa, the party of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq are allies at the national level as partners in the ruling coalition in Baghdad. But at the local level, in the Shiite heartland of southern Iraq, competition between the two parties is increasingly fierce — and local tribal leaders are finding themselves caught in the middle.

Empowering The Tribes

On one particular day, dozens of men with deeply lined faces framed by checkered headdresses chant in support of their sheik, Nabeel al-Ubadi, the head of the al-Fatla tribe. Ubadi has gathered his people to protest in the southern province of Diwaniyah.

"Last Monday, our house was raided," Ubadi says. "There was no legal reason for it."

The sheik was hosting a celebration to mark the end of the holy month of Ramadan when six vehicles bearing Iraqi special police forces surrounded the mudhif, or tribal reception hall. Ubadi says they were targeted because he recently joined a tribal support council.

Sponsored by Prime Minister Maliki, these newly created councils are made up of members of important tribes across the south. The councils are funded and directed by Maliki's office, and their ostensible aim is to give the tribes a role in maintaining local security and the provision of services.

Ubadi says the creation of the councils has caused trouble.

"Those that oppose these tribal councils believe that they are biased, favoring Maliki's Dawa party," he says.

He and other tribal leaders believe Dawa's main rival, the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq, was behind the police raid and others that have targeted the tribal councils.

The Supreme Council currently controls many of the provincial governments in the south, including the local police forces.

Supreme Council leaders have called Maliki's move to establish the tribal councils a blatant attempt to garner votes for the Dawa party.

Sheik Mukhles al-Budairi, the deputy head of one the tribal councils, says that a tribe's endorsement of a particular party or candidate can have a huge effect.

"The tribes are the base of society here, and without them no one can get to power," Budairi says. And now, he says, the tribes are at the center of the struggle between the two Shiite parties. "They are trying to provoke us and intimidate us to vote one way or another."

A Test Of Iraq's Democracy

The upcoming provincial elections, tentatively set for the end of January, will be a test of Iraq's nascent democracy. There has already been a rise in the number of political assassinations in the south ahead of the vote, which is a source of concern, says Maj. Gen. Michael Oates. Oates oversees southern Iraq for the U.S. military.

"When the results are announced, some people who currently hold power will no longer hold power," Oates says. "Do they transfer power peacefully, or do the people who were voted out of office decide to hold onto it by other means?"

The Supreme Council was founded in Iran in the early 1980s by Shiites who had fled the oppression of Saddam Hussein's regime. It has extensive funding, vast power in the provinces and maintains close ties with the Iranian government.

But it's now being blamed for many of the continuing problems in the south — the lack of infrastructure, few services and grinding poverty.

Maliki's party has been gaining in popularity of late, thanks largely to a string of successful security operations ordered by the prime minister in the south and in Baghdad's Sadr City.

With the additional backing of the tribes, Dawa could do very well at the polls. And Supreme Council officials are now demanding that the support councils be disbanded.

"These support councils are illegal and unconstitutional," says Abdurrazzaq al-Nasrawi with the Supreme Council in the southern Babil province. "We do not want the tribes to become politicized."

Back at the tribal reception hall, the head of the al-Fatla tribe, Ubadi, says he expects more trouble.

"It is an election period, so the rivalry between the two parties is going to increase," he says. "Each side is going to try and win in any way possible."

He has already made up his mind though — he will vote for candidates belonging to Maliki's party. And he will tell the members of his tribe to do the same.

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