MICHELE NORRIS, host:
This is All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block. In Iraq, two of the country's main Shiite political parties are locked in a bitter struggle. Dawa, the party of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq are allies at the national level. But in the Shiite heartland of southern Iraq, competition between the two parties is growing fierce - both are jockeying for power ahead of provincial elections early next year. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro traveled to southern Iraq and found local tribal leaders caught in the middle.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: The tribe is angry.
(Soundbite of angry tribesman speaking in Arabic)
NAVARRO: Dozens of men with deeply lined faces framed by checkered headdresses chant in support of their sheik. Around them are the lush rice paddies of this rural area in the southern province of Diwaniyah. Sheik Nabeel al-Ubadi, who heads the al-Fatla tribe has gathered his people to protest.
Mr. NABEEL AL-UBADI (Sheik al-Fatla Tribe): (Through Translator) Last Monday, our house was raided. There was no legal reason for it.
NAVARRO: 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. Sheik Nabeel says they were targeted because he has recently joined a so-called tribal support council. Sponsored by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, these newly created councils are made up of members of important tribes across the south. Their ostensible aim is to give the tribes a role in maintaining local security and the provision of services. The councils are funded and directed by Maliki's office. Sheik Nabeel says the creation of the councils has caused trouble though.
Mr. AL-UBADI: (Through Translator) Those that oppose these tribal councils believe they are biased, favoring Maliki's Dawa party.
NAVARRO: He and other tribal leaders here believe the Dawa's main rival, the Supreme Islamic Council, was behind the police raid and others that have targeted the tribal councils. The Supreme Islamic Council currently controls many of the provincial governments in the south and that includes 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 prime minister's Dawa party. Sheik Mukhles al-Budairi, deputy head of one the tribal councils, says that a tribe's endorsement of a particular party or candidate can have a huge effect.
Sheik MUKHLES AL-BUDAIRI (Deputy Head of One the Tribal Councils): (Through Translator) The tribes are the base of society here, and without them no one can get to power.
NAVARRO: And now, he says, the tribes are at the center of the struggle between the two Shiite parties.
Sheik AL-BUDAIRI: (Through Translator) They are trying to provoke and intimidate us to vote one way or the other.
NAVARRO: 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 and that concerns Major General Michael Oates who oversees southern Iraq for the US military.
Major General MICHAEL OATES (Commander of the 10th Mountain Division, Iraq): And when the results are announced, some people who currently hold power will no longer hold power. Do they transfer power peacefully, effectively or do the people who were voted out of office decide to hold onto it through other means?
NAVARRO: 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 - 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 Iraq's south and Baghdad's Shiite slum of Sadr City. With the additional backing of the tribes, Dawa could do very well at the polls. Supreme Council officials are now demanding that the tribal support councils be disbanded. Abdurrazzaq al-Nasrawi is with the Supreme Council in the southern province of Babil.
Mr. ABDURRAZZAQ AL-NASRAWI (Supreme Council Member, Babil): (Through Translator) These support councils are illegal and unconstitutional. We do not want the tribes to become politicized.
NAVARRO: Back at the tribal reception hall, the head of the al-Fatla tribe, Sheik Nabeel al-Ubadi, says he expects more trouble.
Mr. AL-UBADI: (Through Translator) It is an election period, so the rivalry between the two parties is going to increase. Each side is going to try and win in any way possible.
NAVARRO: 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. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.
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