The Ripples from Provincial Elections are Just Starting

The implications of the January provincial elections are still playing out in Iraqi politics. Since they required intramural competition among Sunni and Shiite political parties (rather than just the old, lopsided Shiite vs. Sunni scenario) they gave the best indication yet of whom voters really support. The results were being officially certified Thursday by the commission governing the vote.

The 14 local councils elected will now have to form coalitions and choose who will serve as their governors – powerful posts with widespread authority over local budgets and security forces. It's complicated – many provinces had more than seven different parties win seats – and the local deals could be tied to agreements on the national level.

The vote showed support for nationalist parties over parties favoring strong local powers. Parties seen as less religiously led did well (though secular liberals like Ayad Allawi still struggled). Those who lost significant power were the Iraqi Islamic Party (Sunni) and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (Shiite), both which are religious and seen as backing local power over central government. Iraqis increasingly want a strong national state.

Here are some of the choices for the pols in the month ahead.

A Move Against Maliki?

Maliki was the biggest winner and is at the center of all the activity. For example, his list won a controlling 28 seats on the crucial 57-seat Baghdad province council. But that has unsettled his rivals. Kurdish leaders, who want to protect their region's autonomy, have chafed at Maliki's efforts to strengthen the central government's control on the armed forces and oil resources. He's also worried his previous Shiite coalition partners ISCI, who had been the dominant power in the Shiite south.

Though their numbers in the provincial councils are now lower, the Kurds, ISCI and the Iraqi Islamic Party are still formidable in the parliament (which is not up for election until January) and are supposedly discussing ways to curb Maliki's burgeoning power. One way would be to hold a no-confidence vote that could turn Maliki into a weakened, caretaker prime minister. But that could also backfire, allowing Maliki to blame his opponents for the government's failure to provide services, like electricity and water.

The parliament could also try to invoke more of its powers to examine and investigate the prime minister's offices. It already cut his budget. Any of this could be alarming to American officials, since it could cause paralysis and friction as U.S. troops begin to pull out.

Maliki's Countermoves

To keep his momentum, Maliki has clearly been seeking to broaden his alliances. After using government forces last spring to pound into submission illegal militias led by renegade Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, he has been reaching out to Sadrist politicians in parliament, negotiating top ministry positions he could offer to their partisans.

He has also made deals with former Sunni adversaries in forming coalitions on the local councils. One is Saleh al-Mutlaq, a parliamentarian whose slate won new local seats. If they can make local deals, it could also win the support of Mutlaq's parliamentary block in preventing a no-confidence vote.

Increased Cross-Sectarian Coalitions

With Maliki talking to Mutlaq and the ISCI talking to the IIP, it raises the possibility that Iraq will not forever be about ethnic politics, Sunnis banding against Shiites. This is something U.S. officials encourage. It could form reconciliation between the sects and weaken the influence of Shiite Iran, which can exert its will easier when Iraqi Shiites are united.

Iran vs. the United States

The countries fighting for influence in pivotal, oil-rich Iraq will be watching how politicians ally and divide in preparations for the big national elections to be held by the end of January.

One rumor going around the Green Zone is that when former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani recently visited Baghdad, he urged Maliki to run in the national vote as part of the broad Shiite bloc he ran with in 2005. Maliki is reputed to have answered that he would consider it if his Islamic Dawa Party leads the ticket – last time it was headed by the more Iranian-linked ISCI.