For some time now we're seeing renewed speculations about the state of unity of the Shia alliance that we can almost see a possible radical change in its structure on the horizon.
It looks like the crack that resulted from ousting Jafari and choosing a replacement after the last elections is still haunting the alliance and its future. The question now is, is this likely to happen again and will the crack deepen after the failure of the government-with the UIA being its bigger component-in providing services and containing the political crisis?
To understand the nature of this bloc we must not forget the underlying historical and ideological factors from which the idea of a unified Shia alliance had arisen.
Centuries of injustice and fear from extinction that reach the level of paranoia affect the thoughts and attitude of its poles; this combined with constant attacks from Salafi/Wahabi extremists and threats posed by statements from regional Sunni powers who are concerned about a rising Shia power in Iraq backed from Iran, all of this keeps pushing the UIA to adhere more to its unity. A unity that is of existential value to the leaders of the alliance; it means much more than a mere political asset.
Reaching the top of the political pyramid in Iraq was a significant achievement for the UIA but the aftermath of this brought with it the real challenge. The UIA seemed weaker than it was before elections and found itself facing a reality that exceeds the Shiasm of the bloc; the UIA had to lead a country of various components and to deal with regional and international situations that impose their own variety of terms and demands.
This has made sticking to the unity of the bloc an impractical idea that can't be salvaged by historical or ideological pretexts. In other words, the big mass of the bloc turned into a burden because it's near impossible for all of its factions to agree on a common policy that satisfies their various goals.
If we look at the political blocs we can say that the UIA now is not as strong as the Kurdish bloc but also not as fragile as the Sunni component. The latter being the most susceptible to disintegration.
Some inside the UIA discovered this early and predicted its impact on the political future of the Shia bloc but still, walking away isn't easy at all especially when the hierarchy in Najaf stresses that, in order to preserve the Shia identity, the unity of the alliance is a redline that politicians must not cross—the UIA became a divine entity and not just a political body and this combination is critical.
When signals came that there are ideas to reshape the political map by forming a 'front of moderates' the members of the alliance who needed the bloc to be in the offices they occupy today felt the danger. They all know that alone they wouldn't get as much votes as if within the UIA, especially the Sadrists and the Dawa; neither can get the same number of seats if enters elections alone. And here the Dawa has another weakness that it has no significant armed wing and they are also less politically powerful than the SCIRI, their traditional rival.
They (the Dawa) realize they won't be the winners from forming the new front and they also know an alliance with the Sadrists won't be fruitful either should the latter get sidelined or struck.
The Dawa is now hesitant between joining the new front which they won't gain much from, and staying away which will mean a loss. That's why it was mostly Dawa members who panicked and rushed to Sistani to explain the nature of the threat which was described to him as a recipe for breaking up the UIA rather than a new phase in political building…once again, the politician seeks shelter in the religious symbol at times of distress.
Sistani didn't hesitate and stood once more on the side of history and faith rather than the present and the state. This is a signal that will be in my opinion of negative impact on the reputation of the Ayatollah who has so far been considered relatively impartial but this time he was very far from being impartial and this will make those who used to trust him as a 'safety valve' for Iraq change their mind—the Ayatollah is now a figure in the Shia equation, not a national symbol. He has simply declared himself a safety valve for the UIA.
The parties afraid from a change did not only warn the Ayatollah about the serious situation but even put in his mouth the "best way" to solve the problem which is convincing the Sadrists to abandon their destructive stance that's been threatening the unity of the alliance.
Although the Sadrists said they would think about it and that they would rejoin the political process (on conditions) the facts on the ground and the constant irresponsible atrocities committed by their gangs makes it very difficult to trust any words they give.
I think the targeting of Aadil Abdul Mahdi in Karrada, the stronghold of the SCIRI shows the level of Shia infighting. This along with the constant challenging to the authorities, mass kidnappings and the attempts to take over Shia cities in the south; this bloody conflict that reached the doorsteps of the UIA leaders is making the moderates in the UIA less interested in preserving the alliance in its old form.
Others will try everything to keep the alliance united and so will Sistani but they will be facing the realism of the others. Even Sistani himself knows that the change is supported by other senior clerics in Najaf which means his word will be faced by opposition from other Ayatollahs who don’t agree with him and who also endorse members and parties within the same alliance.
Meanwhile Maliki and his party have not chosen their way yet and Maliki is torn between two choices; he and his party would like the situation to remain unchanged and at the same time hope the Sadrists come back to reason, but I think every day that passes is making him more willing to consider joining the moving train rather than missing it. Sadr's stiffness will fix Maliki on this track.
It will take some time and lots of talks for the new formation to emerge, and overriding Sistani's interference won't be an easy task at all because who used his influence to win in the first place can't just abandon him like that. a strong and good excuse will be needed to get over it.
In any case I can only see a change coming, the present suggests this, not the past. And perhaps the biggest event that I expect to come after the new front is formed would be calling for holding early general elections towards the end of 2007, and then the political map of Iraq will be different.