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A Q&A on Iraq's parliamentary elections

BAGHDAD — Nadim al-Jabri’s decision to break with Iraq’s ruling Shiite coalition and join an alliance with several prominent Sunnis mirrors the larger changes that have swept the country’s political landscape ahead of Sunday’s parliamentary elections.

If the 2005 national elections hardened Iraqis’ divisions, the run-up to this year’s elections seemed on the surface to herald a new era, with the coalitions of old fracturing into a series of cross-sectarian alliances.

“We participated in two elections with the Shia parties,””al-Jabri, a founding member of Fadhila, or the Islamic Virtue Party, said this week. “But we realized the dangers of this trend, which was tearing up national unity and causing a lot of violence. So we looked for another alliance.”

But how deep the new alliances run and whether they will result in a government better able to tackle Iraq’s problems — or even whether they will survive the aftermath of the election — remains very much in doubt.

Sweeping purges of candidate lists in recent weeks, mainly of Sunni contenders and security officials, have renewed sectarian tensions. Rivalries between the leaders of Iraq’s new alliances mean that more narrowly based Shiite and Kurdish parties will still play a major role in determining the country’s course.

And since none of the alliances are likely to gain a majority of parliament’s 352 seats, forming a new government will require building a coalition of coalitions, a process that could take weeks or months and remains extremely difficult to predict, analysts say.

“I think it’s likely to be old-fashioned power politics rather than issues-based alliance formation, but it’s too soon to be sure,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a foreign policy analyst at the Washington-based Brookings Institution. “We will probably face a period of protracted uncertainty.”

That uncertainty raises the likelihood that the country will be in the throes of political turmoil as the U.S. begins to withdraw the roughly 50,000 troops scheduled to leave Iraq this year. The U.S. presence itself has not emerged as a campaign issue, largely because of the scheduled pullout.

Ahead of the January 2009 local elections, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki broke with the Shiite alliance that brought him to power to emphasize a new agenda focused on security and economic development — a move rewarded by voters.

But later attempts by al-Maliki to broaden his State of Law coalition by bringing in secular and Sunni parties were largely rebuffed. A series of high-profile bombings in Baghdad has since tarnished al-Maliki’s security credentials, and his backing of the legally dubious purge of mostly Sunni candidates allegedly tied to the former Baathist regime from the election has angered many.

While the few published opinion polls suggest al-Maliki’s coalition in the lead with about 30 percent of the vote, to win a new term as prime minister he will likely need to form an alliance either with the Shiite parties he split with last year, or the Sunni and secular parties he has failed to win over since then.

Some analysts see a renewed coalition between al-Maliki and his former Shiite allies — including supporters of the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr — as his most likely path to retain power. But that, too, remains far from assured.

Abbas al-Bayati, a prominent member of al-Maliki’s coalition, said this week that a more likely scenario was a post-election alliance with Iraqiyya, a largely secular bloc led by former interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.

But, as al-Bayati conceded, that would require finding high-level posts for Iraqiyya leaders, including Allawi, Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni vice president, and others.

“There are only so many places at the table,” al-Bayati said. “And we are coming.”

But Iraqiyya may have other ideas.

Ahmed Radi, a Sunni candidate with Iraqiyya, said an alliance with al-Maliki’s bloc was impossible,”pointing to the prime minister’s support for the ban on some 350 candidates with supposed ties to Saddam Hussein.

“It’s just a cover-up for trying to stay in power,””Radi said. “A lot of politicians believe that once they are in charge, they never have to leave that chair.”

Indeed, with the leaders of Iraq’s new alliances virtually the same people who led its old alliances, entrenched rivalries complicate virtually any post-election scenario, raising the possibility that a second-tier candidate for prime minister could emerge as a compromise, much as al-Maliki did in 2005.

Al-Jabri, whose alliance is led by Interior Minister Jawad Bolani, said he’d hope for a greater consensus going into the election.

“We thought we could join with Iraqiyya but it didn’t work out,””he said. “The problem is the leadership. That’s the obstacle.”

A look at the alliances ...STATE OF LAW: Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s coalition includes independent candidates, several minor Sunni parties and members of Iraq’s Christian and Turkman communities. But its backbone remains his Dawa Party, a Shiite Islamist group formed in opposition to Saddam Hussein.

Pulled from relative obscurity as a compromise candidate after the 2005 elections, al-Maliki has presided over a dramatic decline in violence. But continued bombings, economic instability and concerns that he has become too autocratic could hurt his chances.

IRAQIYYA: Former Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a Shiite, is joined by several of Iraq’s most important Sunni leaders, including Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi.

Shifting political sentiment and higher Sunni participation will likely lead to improved results from 2005, when Allawi’s largely secular coalition fared poorly. But Iraqiyya was hit hard by the ban on candidates alleged to have ties to the former Baathist regime. Prominent Sunni parliamentarians Saleh al-Mutlaq and Dhafir al-Ani were both among those barred.

IRAQI NATIONAL ALLIANCE: Remnants of the Shiite alliance that dominated the 2005 vote, the INA remains formidable, bringing together the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, or ISCI; the followers of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr; and the party of former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari.

The INA should do well in the Shiite heartland in southern Iraq, but ISCI in particular, once the strongest force in Iraqi Shiite politics, has lost considerable ground to al-Maliki in recent elections. Though the INA sought to recast itself in more nationalist tones after last year’s local elections, it remains overwhelmingly Shiite and has close ties to Iran.

Ahmad Chalabi, whose largely false intelligence formed part of the basis for the 2003 U.S. invasion, is also a running with this coalition and is seen as the guiding hand behind the recent purge of rival candidates.

KURDISTAN ALLIANCE: Winning about 20 percent of parliament seats in 2005, the Kurdish bloc could again prove a crucial swing vote in determining the next government.

A reform movement that gained ground against the two traditional Kurdish parties in local elections last year is fielding a separate list of candidates, but the two lists will likely merge after the elections. Both are focused on regional autonomy and the unresolved status of the northern city of Kirkuk, which the Kurds claim as their capital.

UNITY OF IRAQ ALLIANCE: Led by Interior Minister Jawad Bolani, a Shiite, this alliance includes Ahmad Abu Risha, a leader of the Sunni tribal groups in Anbar province that allied with the U.S. military to fight al-Qaida beginning in 2006.

IRAQI ACCORD: A Sunni coalition also known as Tawafuq, the Iraqi Accord has seen many of its most prominent members leave for other alliances such as Iraqiyya.

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