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Sabah al-Nasseri: “The thing that is so important about this provincial election, because the provinces, they have autonomous status and they have enormous power vis-à-vis the central government—you know, we have a weak central government. So if you look at Kurdistan, they have enormous power when it comes to oil, when it comes to security, etc. So if the al-Sadr movement would win the election in Baghdad, in Al Kut, Al Basra, etc., they will have not only the majority within the provincial parliament, but also they can decide about oil contracts and about the US military bases in their province.”
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR: Welcome back to the next part of our interview with Sabah al-Nasseri, professor of political science at York University, and we’re discussing the future of Iraq. Professor, both Obama and McCain’s plan have a lot to do—are assuming that the current political configuration will stay more or less as it is. But talk to us about the elections coming, scheduled in October, and how this alliance and configuration of stars may change.
PROF. SABAH AL-NASSERI, YORK UNIVERSITY,TORONTO: Yeah. I mean, the attack, like, in March, April, May, made in Basra against the Sadr movement was part of this scenario to skewer the election of the current—.
JAY: So, just for viewers that may not know, Muqtada al-Sadr is a nationalist cleric who’s been very opposed to the US occupation and does not get along very well with the current government.
AL-NASSERI: Yeah. Exactly. And he has more legitimacy and credibility within Iraq, because he was inside Iraq all those years. Part of his family was killed in Iraq. So, comparing to the current [inaudible] in Iraq, who has lived in exile for the last 20 or 30 years, the Iraqi people knows exactly who al-Sadr, and thing he is doing the last decades, and so on. So he has more legitimacy in Iraq, people, especially the popular classes in Iraq.
JAY: So this attack on Basra, you’ve pointed out before, by the Maliki government had a lot to do with weakening—
AL-NASSERI: Weakening the al-Sadr movement.
JAY: —al-Sadr movement with these coming elections. So where are we at with the elections? There’s a fight taking place over how they’ll be held.
AL-NASSERI: The fascinating thing about this election is that for the first time it will be contested. You know, all the elections before, they were orchestrated by the United States.
JAY: And in the previous big election, the Sadrist movement boycotted it.
AL-NASSERI: Exactly. So it was clear right from the beginning who will win the election. All the Iraqis knew exactly who will be the [inaudible] president or the president, etcetera. But this time, it is really contested. So that’s why al-Maliki and the United States are not really sure if al-Maliki and Hakim and so on will win the election in the middle and the south of Iraq.
JAY: Now, the October election is provincial.
AL-NASSERI: Provincial election.
JAY: It won’t affect the national leadership this election. Is that correct?
AL-NASSERI: Yes. But the thing that is so important about this provincial election, because the provinces, they have autonomous status and they have enormous power vis-à-vis the central government—you know, we have a weak central government. So if you look at Kurdistan, they have enormous power when it comes to oil, when it comes to security, etcetera. So if the al-Sadr movement would win the election in Baghdad, in Al Kut, Al Basra, [inaudible] etcetera, they will have not only the majority within the provincial parliament, but also they can decide about oil contracts and about the US military bases in their province.
JAY: With Basra being the center of the Iraqi oil industry.
AL-NASSERI: Exactly. And that’s why it’s so central for the al-Maliki government and for the United States to make sure that the current constellation of forces would win the election. Any shifts here could jeopardize the whole project of al-Maliki and the United States.
JAY: So where exactly are we at? Are we going to see elections in October? And if not, when? And what’s happening?
AL-NASSERI: The thing is, I think if the current government is sure that they would win the election, that the Sadr movement is so weakened that they will not win the majorities, they will do the election. But if they realize that the al-Sadr movement is popular and that probably they [inaudible] the election, they will postpone the election. They will use, like, any kind of excuse to postpone the election in order to secure a different time, time schedule.
JAY: So the election in the province of Basra or the city of Basra [inaudible] is going to be one of the critical election battles, given how much oil is at stake and how strong the Sadrist forces have been. What do you know of what the balance of forces now are in Basra vis-à-vis the elections?
AL-NASSERI: Yeah. Before, the Hakim groups, and especially the Badr militias, they used to control Basra, especially 2003, 2004. But then things were shifted, and al-Mehdi Army of al-Sadr movement take control of the majority in Basra. So that’s why the attack in March and April and May, to weaken the al-Sadr movement in Basra and strengthen—.
JAY: It may weaken them on the ground militarily. What will be the consequences in terms of an open vote?
AL-NASSERI: These are the things which they cannot predict. They are thinking by weakening the movement militarily they could weaken it also politically. At the same time, they are trying to secure a kind of political capital of the current situation vis-à-vis the United States, in order to tell the Iraqi people, “We have more sovereignty now. We have more legitimacy now. We are capable of acting independently. We are setting timetable, etcetera, for the United States.” So they’re trying to get a kind of legitimacy vis-à-vis al-Sadr movement. This is the only thing they can do now in order to mobilize the voter for their own election in October. But they are not sure if they can secure the majority.
JAY: So, with the best plans laid by mice and men, Obama’s plan for a withdrawal might change if a Sadrist victory in Basra.
AL-NASSERI: Definitely. And I would argue that probably—it’s a hypothesis, but it could be possible—if the al-Sadr movement would win the election in October in the major provinces in Iraq, probably, in order to secure the presence of the US troops in Iraq and US military bases, they could provoke an attack on Iran, because this is the only option to extend the presence of the US troops in Iraq beyond December 2008. So it’s very critical.
JAY: We now get into speculation. But is this perhaps a dividing line between a McCain and an Obama presidency, where the McCain presidency, it’s hard to imagine, would accept that kind of defeat in Iraq? With some of the language we’re hearing from Obama, perhaps Obama would live with this situation. Perhaps.
AL-NASSERI: Perhaps. It depends on the grounds, things happens on grounds. And I believe, in the last analysis, that things will be determined in Iraq on ground by the Iraqi people and not what Obama and McCain think. But the thing is, what I’m afraid of is that if the Sadr movement would win the election in October, that the current administration would provoke an attack on Iran to create fait accomplis for the next US administration.
JAY: [inaudible] is that election in Iraq to be in October. There seems to be so many fights taking place about the regulations. It sounds like it’s going to be postponed at any rate.
AL-NASSERI: This could be the reason why they are trying to bypass the Iraqi Parliament in many issues. Like, when it comes to oil now, we don’t have oil law, but they’re trying to open contract with corporations. When it come to security issues, they are trying to bypass the Parliament to create a memorandum of understanding. So they’ve tried to bypass all these laws, constitutional law, and create fait accomplis on the ground, so the election could be also postponed if they’re not sure they will win the election.
JAY: So all eyes on these Iraqi provincial elections. Thank you for joining us, Professor Nasseri, and thank you for joining us for this series of interviews with Sabah al-Nasseri. And if you enjoy them and would like to see more content like this, please look over my shoulder, where you will see a donate button. We depend on you for our financial support. Thank you.
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