Aside from the attacks on Shi'a pilgrims, whose toll has risen to more than two-hundred between dead and injured – and just like the Samarra bombing a year ago, such attacks will likely produce sectarian retaliations and a renewed wave of violence – Iraqi newspapers focused their coverage on the withdrawal of al-Fadhila party from the Shi'a ruling bloc.
Al-Fadhila party itself is one of the smaller constituents of the United Iraqi Alliance, a collection of Shi'a parties whose two largest members are the Sadrist Current and al-Hakeem’s SCIRI, in addition to the Da'wa party. Al-Fadhila, a Shi'a islamist party, controls a little more than 5% of the seats of the Iraqi National Assembly and its withdrawal will not disturb the majority in the Iraqi parliament. But the context in which al-Fadhila dissented, in addition to parallel political moves on the Iraqi scene, may signify that the major coalitions that have controlled political life in Iraq since 2005 may be in for a major shuffle.
Az-Zaman (international) headlined: “Al-Fadhila withdraws from the Iraqi Alliance to escape sectarianism.” Al-Mada quoted one of the leaders of al-Fadhila, Nadeem al-Jabiri, who explained the decision of his leadership to withdraw by citing the sectarian nature of political blocs in Iraq. Al-Jabiri said that his party will function as an independent bloc for now, adding that an agreement was reached with other political forces to launch “a patriotic project, based on the unity of Iraq and its sovereignty.”(There are different accounts regarding that last phrase, leading to different interpretations. Az-Zaman relayed al-Fadhila’s statement as saying that the party will enter a new bloc when a “patriotic project” is born, signaling that no such agreement is yet in the works, contra al-Mada’s account)
In the Iraqi political lexicon, the term “patriotic” (watani) is often used in opposition to “Sectarian” (Ta'ifi). In a challenge to the current political structure in Iraq, Al-Fadhila’s spokesman added that “saving Iraq from its crisis” has to begin “with the dismembering of these blocs (in reference to the major sectarian alliances in Iraq), and by not allowing the formation of sectarian and ethnic blocs in the future.” Of course, al-Maliki’s government rests on these forms of alliances, and Iraqi newspapers have been discussing for several months now the possible emergence of a new “trans-sectarian” political bloc that will challenge, or even topple, al-Maliki’s government.
Whether it is true that al-Fadhila has abandoned the Shi'a bloc due to its sectarian nature or not, al-Fadhila has had a tenuous relationship with the Iraqi Alliance from the moment of inception of the bloc. Al-Fadhila had threatened to withdraw from the bloc at more than one occasion, and had refused to join al-Maliki’s cabinet when ministerial appointments were made.
The three major Iraqi papers reviewed for this roundup, al-Mada, Az-Zaman and As-Sabah al-Jadeed included in the same story of the dissent of al-Fadhila the news of the creation of a new political bloc, joining Iyad 'Allawi’s coalition (Wifaq) with the Sunni party of 'Adnan al-Dulaimi to form “The Iraqi National Front.” A sign that the two events are seen as linked; some analysts even jumped to report that al-Fadhila will be the next group to join this new political front, which has not been confirmed by any of the parties involved.
On the formation of the “Iraqi National Front”, As-Sabah al-Jadeed quoted 'Adnan al-Dulaimi who said that the new coalition “will not have a sectarian character.” Dulaimi is considered to be extremely opposed to the government and the American occupation of Iraq, and he had made extreme sectarian pronouncements in a conference in Turkey two months ago, calling on Sunnis around the world to “aid” their “brethren” in Iraq against what he perceived as a Shi'a onslaught, aimed at exterminating Sunnis in Iraq.
Some may hold an optimistic view of these events, and see 'Allawi’s initiatives, coupled with al-Fadhila’s withdrawal, as the dawn of a new era in Iraq, where sectarian blocs get dismembered and new “non-sectarian” groupings take over. Others see 'Allawi’s new front as an American-sponsored plan aiming to weaken Maliki and pressurize him, by using 'Allawi as a challenger and a potential replacement. When 'Allawi visited Kurdistan last week to promote his trans-sectarian coalition, the presence of the American ambassador in the tour was seen as a sign of American involvement in 'Allawi’s new adventure.
(Please note: due to a religious holiday, several Iraqi papers will not appear until the beginning of next week. In the meantime, roundups of the Arab press may be provided instead)