There was a time when many observers believed that the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP) would be one of the big losers in the January 2009 provincial election. The IIP had broken the Sunni boycott in 2005 and run anyway causing resentment amongst many. The formation of the Anbar Awakening, and then the Sons of Iraq across many of the Sunni areas directly challenged their rule as they had a popular base the IIP lacked. Instead the IIP and its Accordance Front coalition finished first in two provinces in the January balloting, and third in three others, plus a surprising fifth in Basra. One of those victories came in northern Diyala. The turn of events there showed how the IIP was able to turn the Sons of Iraq program to their electoral advantage.
Diyala province is in northern Iraq, and remains one of the most violent in Iraq. The population is roughly 55% Sunni Arabs, 30% Shiite Arabs, and 15% Kurds. In 2005 the Sunnis boycotted the election there allowing an alliance of the Dawa Party and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council to take power with twenty of the 41 council seats. The Islamic Party did run there, coming in second with fourteen seats. That led to sectarian fighting and the growth of Al Qaeda in Iraq in Diyala. In April 2006 Abu Musab al-Zarqawi announced Diyala as the center of his Islamic Caliphate. That brought in Shiite militias from Baghdad to fight for their brethren, who began receiving arms and weapons from Iran. The Kurdish peshmerga had also moved into the Khanaqin district shortly after the U.S. invasion.
Things looked bleak in Diyala until 2007. That was the year members of the 1920s Revolution Brigades, and several other insurgent groups, along with the Karki and Shimouri tribes began turning on their former allies Al Qaeda in Iraq. These became the first Sons of Iraq (SOI) units in the province. What was at first seen as a threat by the Islamic Party to their claim to stand for the Sunni population, turned into an opportunity. In February 2007 Hussein al-Zubaydi the head of security in the Diyala provincial council and a member of the Islamic Party volunteered to work with the Americans to help organize the SOI. Zubaydi’s position allowed him to determine the make-up of the SOI. Later, when the U.S. began distributing aid through the SOI, the Islamic Party took advantage of that as well claiming responsibility. Through their maneuverings they were able to co-opt the SOI program, and build up a popular base that they never had before. This put them in a good position heading into the provincial elections that were originally scheduled for 2008.
It was just then that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki became concerned about the growth of Sunni power there. In mid-2007 Baghdad created the Diyala Support Council that was supposed to ensure security in the province. It was not connected to the provincial council or security forces however, and worked explicitly to build up support for the Prime Minister. They were given control of recruiting locals into the security forces, which was a major form of patronage at Maliki’s disposal. The purpose of the council was to win over members of the SOI and weaken the Islamic Party’s new base. The U.S. quickly became concerned about the council's activities and complained to Baghdad about it saying that it might destabilize Diyala even more. In late October 2007 for example, the U.S. general in command of northern Iraq complained that Baghdad refused to take in 6,000 Sunnis into the Diyala provincial police. The general said that the Interior Ministry had turned down his request. Of course, the Diyala Support Council was able to deliver names directly to the Ministry and get them hired.
In 2008 Maliki upped the ante in Diyala. In January 2008 Baghdad formed the first Tribal Support Council in the province. Like the Diyala Support Council, the new Tribal Councils were meant to take fighters away from the SOI, create support for Maliki, divide the Sunnis, and weaken the Islamic Party. In July the Prime Minister launched the Omens of Prosperity security offensive there. The operation was aimed as much at the insurgents as the Islamic Party and their Sons of Iraq allies. By the end of August five top SOI leaders had been arrested along with hundreds of their followers, while others had fled the province. In the provincial capital Baquba for example, all of the SOI checkpoints were shut down by August, along with all but one of their offices. Members of the Islamic Party were also rounded and harassed. To underline the political nature of Omens of Prosperity the government arrested three SOI members as they were going to register as candidates for the provincial election. Their arrest made them ineligible to run. The SOI went to the U.S. for help, but they weren’t able to stop Maliki. This was a classic use of the carrot and the stick. At first, Maliki offered SOI jobs through the Diyala and Tribal Support Council programs in return for their support. He then went after those that had not joined him using the Iraqi Army and police.
The Islamic Party headed into the 2009 elections at a seeming disadvantage. There were over forty-five parties and lists running in Diyala, but the four major ones were expected to take most of the votes. Those were the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council’s Diyala Coalition, Maliki’s Rule of Law List, the Kurdistan Alliance, and the Accordance and Reform Front. The last was led by Ezze Addeen Ibrahim Yaseen Muhammed, and was made up of the Iraqi Islamic Party, the Iraqi Commission for Civil Society, the General Conference of Iraqi People, and the Iraqi Arab Assembly. It also included many members of the SOI. Concerned about their political future the SIIC controlled provincial council called for a delay in the election there for six months in December. That didn’t happen and the Islamic Party’s list began campaigning. That was tough in a province where there are still insurgent pockets. The List’s candidates rarely crossed sectarian lines, and one was kidnapped and killed. The Reform Front was also competing with Tribal Support Councils that were expected to deliver the tribes to Maliki’s list, along with Saleh al-Mutlak, a Sunni independent who was appealing mostly to Baathists.
When January 31, 2009 came along, the Islamic Party came out victorious. Despite the insurgency, and Maliki’s moves 57% of the province’s voters turned out, one of the highest in the country. They gave the Islamic Party’s list 21.1% of the vote, good enough for first place. The Kurdish Alliance came in second with 17.2%, Saleh al-Mutlak’s Iraqi National Project got 15%, while former Interim Prime Minister Ilyad Allawi’s Iraqi National List was fourth at 9.5%. Maliki’s State of Law list came in fifth with 6%. That means the Islamic Party’s List will have to cut deals with at least two others to gain a majority to rule the province.
The Islamic Party’s moves allowed it to take advantage of Iraq’s two provincial elections. In 2005 they ran basically uncontested in Diyala because of the Sunni boycott and came in second place. In 2009 they were able to come in first. Their size, organization, access to money and the media, and the election law, which favored large parties all worked to the IIP’s advantage. More importantly they were able to co-opt the former insurgents that became the Sons of Iraq as they were first being organized in 2007, while surviving Maliki’s crackdown in 2008. The IIP can now claim that they speak for many of Iraq’s Sunnis having done well in two ballots. They have to exert their power in Diyala carefully however, as they will have coalition partners and be ever vigilant of Maliki’s willingness to use the security forces for his political gain.
Early Election Results In Diyala
Iraqi Accordance Front: 21.1%
Kurdish Alliance: 17.2%
Iraqi National Project: 15%
Iraqi National List: 9.5%
State of Law: 6%
Coalition of Diyala: 5.3%
National Reform Party: 4.3%
Independent Free Movement List: 3.1%
National Movement: 2.6%
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