Is the Iraqi Shiite alliance about to fall apart? And, if yes, will such an event dash hopes of democratic progress in Iraq?
These are the questions debated both inside and outside Iraq as the stalemate over forming a new government continues.
The answer to the first question is: yes. The United Iraqi Alliance (UIA)was nothing but an electoral coalition, a temporary arrangement, designed to help the Shiite community secure a majority of seats in the all-powerful national assembly. With the elections over it has lost its raison d'etre. Though it is the largest bloc, the UIA failed to win enough seats to become a majority in the new parliament.
This means that the UIA cannot form a government without coalition partners. And that, in turn, means that the UIA cannot dictate its choice of prime minister or, indeed, other key members of government.
Well, we now know that the UIA will find no coalition partners as long as it insists on Ibrahim al-Jaafari as its candidate for premiership. If al-Jaafari and his supporters, notably Muqtada al-Sadr, insist on his candidacy, a split in the UIA might become inevitable.
Now to the second question: whether a Shiite split will harm Iraq's democratic prospects? The answer is: no. On the contrary, such a split could be regarded as both natural and desirable. It is natural because Shiism is a religious way (mazhab), not a political ideology. A Shiite could subscribe to any political ideology- from Liberalism to Communism.
In a sense a split in the UIA will be good both for Shiites and for Iraq as a whole. It would be good for Shiites because it would allow them to forge political alliances with other Iraqi communities across the board while maintaining their position as the largest community within a democratic system. It would be good for Iraq because it would discard the threat of sectarian politics and foster the growth of parties offering a range of choices to the voters.
As things stand today, political forces in Iraq are divided on four key issues.
The first could be summarised under the label of "federalism". Some parties prefer a strong central government with no more than a minimum of autonomy for the Kurdish community. Others want a looser system in which power is devolved to the regions with central authority essentially exercised by the parliament.
The second issue concerns the economic model that Iraq needs to develop in conjunction with its new political system. Some parties wish to develop a Social Democratic-style welfare state in which the government operates as an agent of distributing the nation's income with special attention to the poor and vulnerable. Other parties support a liberal capitalist model in which free enterprise, not central planning, shapes the pattern of economic development.
The third issue concerns the role of faith in society and the relationship between organised religion, essentially the ulema both Shiite and Sunni, and state. While some parties are avowedly secular and insist on a separation of mosque and state, others favour some organic relationship between the ulema and the political decision-makers. This overarching issue also covers a cluster of social and cultural policies, related to individual liberties and life-styles.
Finally, the parties are divided according to the emphasis each puts on this or that aspect of Iraqi identity. Some wish to emphasise Iraq's Arab-ness (uruba) while others feel more at home with the concept of Iraqi-ness (uruqa). Still others wish to transcend uruba and uruqa by developing what Jurgen Habermas calls "civic patriotism", that is to say loyalty to a set of basic values such as human rights and democracy rather than to blood or soil.
If it is possible for Iraqi political parties to divide across those lines it is precisely because they all agree on two fundamental points: the first is the preservation of the unity of Iraq, and the second the belief that political power should be won only through elections.
Even the Kurdish parties that have often been accused of harbouring secessionist dreams in secret have shown that, provided Iraq becomes a federal democratic republic, they would be prepared to stay with it and work for its unity. At the other end of the spectrum even Muqtada al-Sadr, now recasting himself as a politician rather than a militia leader, does not reject democratic elections as the sole means of winning power.
Now let us see who might end up with whom if Iraqi parties form alliances based on those four issues.
On federalism, al-Sadr and al-Jaafari's wing of the Da'awah Party might find themselves on the side of the pan-Arab Sunni parties. The Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri), on the other hand, would find itself closer to the Kurdish parties and centrist Arab Sunni groups.
On the second issue, that of the economic model, al-Jaafari and al-Sadr would be closer to Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and neo-Ba'athist Sunni Arabs who wish the state to play a central role. The Democratic Party of Kurdistan (PDKI), of Massoud Barzani, however, would be closer to the Sciri because both favour a greater role for free enterprise.
On the issue of relationship between mosque and state the bloc led by former Premier Iyad Allawi, a Shi'ite, could find interlocutors in both major Kurdish parties plus the neo-Ba'athists the Arab Sunni groups. At the same time Sciri would appear to be more favourable to some clerical influence in decision-making than are the al-Sadr and al-Jaafari factions.
Finally, the issue of uruba or uruqa could also help define the ideological contours of the Iraqi parties. While Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim and his Sciri would be closer to the uruqa camp, al-Sadr and Allawi would feel more comfortable with uruba.
As our analysis shows the lines of difference and concord among the political parties are not always sharply drawn. The same parties could find themselves in one camp on one issue and in the opposite camp on another. Nevertheless, at some point, they would all have to decide whom to coalesce with.
In their recent visit to Baghdad the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her British counterpart Jack Straw urged the formation of a " government of national unity" with the participation of all parties in the new parliament. It is hard to divine the logic of that advice.
Forming such a grand coalition would require all parties to forgo or, worse still, hide key aspects of their ideologies and programmes, thus practicing a political form of " taqiyah" (dissimulation) to please the US-led coalition. It would also leave the new system without a parliamentary opposition. That, in turn, could turn the insurgents and the so-called " street" into the only vehicles for opposing the government.
It would be wiser to let Iraqi parties split in accordance with their ideologies and programmes. Once that has happened some could come together to form a coalition government while others will stay out to act as parliamentary opposition. In a democracy, opposition is as necessary as government.
The important thing is to create a system in which today's opposition has a reasonable hope of becoming tomorrow's government. And, despite all the violence and the hardship it causes, that is possible in the new Iraq. So why not allow the new system to develop its potentials?