Parties Vie For Power In Iraq's Shiite South

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki i i

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki spoke during a graduation ceremony marking the 87th anniversary of the Iraqi police force's founding earlier this month in Baghdad. Iraqi Prime Minister Office via Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Iraqi Prime Minister Office via Getty Images
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki spoke during a graduation ceremony marking the 87th anniversary of the Iraqi police force's founding earlier this month in Baghdad.

Iraqi Prime Minister Office via Getty Images

In the run-up to Saturday's provincial elections in Iraq, the largely Shiite south has become the main battleground for two of the country's strongest political parties.

They are allies in the national government, but their rivalry in the south could threaten that alliance.

Diwaniyah sits on a branch of the Euphrates River a bit more than a hundred miles south of Baghdad.

It's a market town and the capital of Qadisiyah province. The area around it is dotted with rice fields and palm trees.

The streets of Diwaniyah have become the public battleground of the electoral campaign — political posters are everywhere.

Mahdi Abdullah thinks perhaps there are too many.

"We see them on the houses, shops and light posts. They have defaced our city with their posters," he says.

The faces of two politicians dominate the landscape here. The first is Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose Dawa party has surged in popularity in recent months. His supporters say he is a strong leader who has helped bring a fragile peace to the country. His party appeals to a middle-class, more secular Shiite population. He's also been courting Shiite tribal leaders.

The other is Abdul Aziz Hakim, the leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. His party's posters strike a more religious theme. The Supreme Council is seen as closer to Iran than the Dawa party. It draws its support primarily from among the poor and the more religious.

"Our duty, as religious people and as representatives of this party, is to call on our people to participate to preserve the political future for them as sons of these provinces. And our political future depends on the region south of Baghdad," says Hasan al Zamahly, the Supreme Council's leader in the south.

The Supreme Council is pressing for the creation of a large autonomous region in the south, much like the Kurds already have in the north. A southern "megaprovince" would control the region's vast oil fields.

Fadhil Mawat sits on the Qadisiyah Provincial Council. A Dawa party member, he says the Supreme Council's plan would be disastrous for Iraq, and he has made it a central campaign issue.

"The people have realized that if the provinces became more powerful than the central government, that would lead to the division of Iraq," he says.

Maliki is making a huge push in these provincial elections, campaigning hard in the south in an effort to build a base for national elections later this year.

At the moment, the Supreme Council controls six of the eight southern provinces — and their local security forces. Mawat says the Supreme Council leaders are using the police to intimidate their opposition, including the Dawa party.

"They're trying to provoke us ... it reached the point that some of our list members, including myself, have been threatened with assassination," he says.

The Supreme Council's Zamahly counters those charges by alleging that Maliki is using the Iraqi military as a political force. He cites a recent parade in another southern province.

"All the army vehicles that took part in the parade carried posters of Maliki and his new political list. It was a kind of election propaganda. The army should not be politicized," he says.

It's this kind of maneuvering that has people worried in Diwaniyah — and elsewhere in the south. Local analysts say there's a real possibility the Supreme Council could lose control of some provinces, and there are fears that the transfer of power may not go peacefully — especially if the election isn't seen as legitimate.

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