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According to Leila Fadel, Baghdad bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers, sectarian leaders elected in Iraq’s 2005 general election did not significantly improve the lives of average Iraqis. In the upcoming January 2009 provincial elections, many hope for secular leaders focused on Iraq’s national interests, but the real battle will be between the elites of the Shia for control of the oil rich south.

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Iraqi elections: elites fight for power and oil
Paul Jay, Washington, DC

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to the next in our series of interviews with Leila Fadel, the McClatchy bureau chief in Baghdad. Thanks for joining us. January 31 provincial elections throughout Iraq. Talk about the significance and what we might expect.

LEILA FADEL, MCCLATCHY BAGHDAD BUREAU CHIEF: Well, I think the provincial elections are going to decide who the power players are across the country. The reason certain parties are so powerful is because they control regions. That’s where their power comes from. So a lot of [what] I expect, or what I’ve been watching for as a reporter, is an uptick in violence, because that’s what’s going to eliminate the enemy in some cases. And I think the American military is also watching out for that; at the time, or when I was back there, that’s what they were watching for. So, you know, the Supreme Council, which I described as the most powerful political Shia party in Iraq, right, if they lose the provinces, they lose that power. So it’s very important that they take the provinces in the south, and so they right now are fighting for those provinces. The Sadrists say they’re being killed by Badr, which is the militant or the armed wing.

JAY: Maliki’s militia.

FADEL: Well, not Maliki’s militia. It’s the Supreme Council, which the—. The Dawa Party’s actually the weakest of the Shia parties, Maliki’s party. And the reason the prime minister has been with the Dawa Party twice in a row is because it is the compromise candidate between the Sadrists and the Supreme Council who are bitter enemies, opposite types of organizations. The Supreme Council’s very elitist. There’s a rivalry between the Hakim family and the Sadr family. And so the Dawa Party has always been the weakest party and the settle party, the compromise party. And that’s why the prime minister—. Now al-Maliki is huge. Now al-Maliki’s paying people in provinces across the country on these things called “support councils,” so that he can get what—political support is what these people are saying, and he’s bringing, he’s ruling their people. So the Supreme Council knows in the south that members of their organization are at these meetings ’cause they get cash. So they’re scared. And so that will be, really, a telling time, and it will decide who the brokers are and what the country will look like.

JAY: Now, what’s the potential strains of the forces that support Sadr?

FADEL: I don’t know what’s going to happen with the Sadrists, because the Sadrists have been down and out for awhile now. Muqtada went from being this fiery cleric who came out and invigorated the people to fight and resist and all this—this was his image—then he became a feared sectarian figure. His militia was known for killing Sunnis, for massacring people, for running neighborhoods as if they were their own personal playgrounds, with these young men killing people—Shia, Sunni, anybody who disagreed with them. And then he’s in Iran telling his people to stand down, don’t fight, after he’s been telling them to fight for so long, but he doesn’t come back and make public appearances. So his popularity has really taken a hit. And so he disbanded his idea, the idea of political slates, and that was a political decision. He took his people out of the administrative positions in the current government, saying to Maliki, “If you don’t like our candidates, find independent technocrats [inaudible] and we’ll give you that opportunity.” And that’s what he’s doing in these provincial elections. He’s saying, “We’re not going to run as a organization, but we’re going to support candidates. We’re going to say, ‘We like this guy. We like that guy.’” So the idea is that they’re going to put Sadrists throughout, on different slates. And that may be a way to [inaudible]. I’m not really sure. But they’ve really taken a hit. They’re not the popular organization that they once were. But, again, you can’t really see exactly where people are until the election happens. A lot of people on the street now want more secular leaders.

JAY: What is the state of organizations, whether they be trade unions or other kinds of associations, that are relatively more secular and not tied up directly with these political parties?

FADEL: Well, a lot of people feel—in the last elections, national elections, people voted for ethnic and sectarian—or parties based on a sect. Right? So the Shias voted 555, which was the United Iraqi Alliance, the Shia alliance of Islamic parties. The Sunnis voted for the Iraqi Accordance Front, which was at the time a organization of Sunni-Islamic parties. So a lot of people voted for these Islamists and they got nothing back, they got nothing in return: their electricity didn’t improve; their water didn’t improve; their life didn’t improve. So a lot of people don’t want that again. They want to go for a more secular candidate. They want to go for somebody who’s going to have Iraq on their minds, not Shia, Sunni, Kurd, where is my oil. But they don’t feel they really have an option.

JAY: Yeah, what political force represents them?

FADEL: Yeah, exactly, and that’s what they’re asking themselves. You know, Chalabi, not really an option anymore. Allawi, who is a secular, and he runs the Iraqi List, again, somebody who’s disappointed them in the past—a possibility, but somebody who’s disappointed in the past. There’s also candidates like Mithal al-Alusi, who’s a Sunni, secular legislator who is actually quite popular among Shias, and his whole movement is about being populist and Iraqi and Iraqi-first. But he’s visited Israel three times, and he’s done things that have damaged his political credit but have also—he also has this image among the Iraqi people as being quite honest. And so, you know, they’re looking for an option, but they just don’t have one. They don’t have anybody that can replace the current parties.

JAY: And what about critical issues we should be watching for on January 31?

FADEL: Come January 31, I would be watching for political violence. I would want to see who’s taking the major positions in the provinces in the south, because that decides will there be a federal region based on the Supreme Council [inaudible]

JAY: So the real struggle’s going to be Shia and Shia versus Shia for control of the south.

FADEL: Yeah. I think the real story’s going to be Shia on Shia in the south and then the disputed areas in the north. Mosul, for example, is—.

JAY: And when we say Shia and Shia, we mean amongst the Shia elite fighting for power in the south.

FADEL: Right. We’re not talking about—. Yeah, we’re not talking about [inaudible]

JAY: Ordinary people are trying to have a life.

FADEL: No. We’re talking about—. And that’s what’s [inaudible]. People are getting caught up in all this political “Who gets the power?” So, come January 31, it’s going to be a Shia-Shia battle. Will Maliki have the power that he wants so he can continue to be a strong central government leader? Will the Supreme Council get the provinces so they can just get a referendum of some kind and have the Shia stand they’ve wanted for so long? Then the other issue, of course, is the Kurdish north. Currently in places like Ninawa province, the Kurds dominate the provincial council—31 of 41 members are Kurds. But the province itself is dominated by Sunni Arabs. So there is a skewed representation happening there. So it’ll be interesting to see how that election goes through. You’re also going to be wanting to watch for any type of influence in the elections, rigging of the elections. People are very afraid of that. And then the disputed areas: where do the votes go in the disputed areas between the Kurds and the Arabs? Which will tell you whether or not those areas will go to the central government or will go [inaudible]

JAY: Yeah. One final question. In the next segment of our interview, let’s explore just what will happen to American strategic interests in the region if they in fact do leave in 2011. Please join us for the next and last segment of our interview with Leila Fadel.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Leila Fadel is the chief of the Baghdad bureau of McClatchy Newspapers. She has covered the war in Iraq for Knight Ridder and now McClatchy on and off since June 2005, as well as the 34-day war in Lebanon between Hezbollah and Israel in the summer of 2006. Prior to joining the McClatchy team she worked at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram as a crime and higher education reporter.

Fadel graduated from Northeastern University in Boston in 2004 and has lived in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. She speaks conversational Arabic. She was named print journalist of the year by the Houston Press Club for her work in 2005 and won a Katie Award from the Dallas Press Club in 2006 for her portfolio of work.

Her Iraq reporting won her Print Journalist of the Year honors from the Houston Press Club citing her work from "Bedford (Texas) to Baghdad."