Patronage and Iraqi Politics
"In 2007, Maliki’s forces drove the Sadrists’ Mehdi army out of Basra. Although allied in the central government, Maliki and the Sadrists are once again competing, but this time through political rather than military means...
"The Sadrists rely on a fluid chain of decision-making that issues policies at the top levels of government and implements projects through local committees in the provinces they run. In just a few months, their ministries have begun to build housing complexes in Maysan, implement infrastructure projects in Muthanna, improve the provision of electricity in Dhi-Qar, and improve access to water in Najaf. Starting with Maysan, Maliki has spared no time in disrupting this flow by limiting government funding, delaying approval for implementation, and hampering foreign investments.
"The rush to outperform each other is most evident in the provinces of Basra and Baghdad. Maliki has hastened the allocation of funds and approved projects, but often the Sadrists have capitalized on Maliki’s efforts by taking credit for implementing projects through local committees and the ministries they run. In Baghdad, when the government began providing free fuel to supply electric generators, Sadrist committees organized distribution to each home in Sadr City and Shula. As the Shatt al-Arab irrigation project began in Basra, Maliki was compelled to create the National Council for Water under his chairmanship, undermining the Ministry of Water in the process.
"If Maliki governs Iraq as its patron –– through a pyramidal hierarchy of command emanating from Baghdad –– the Sadrists deploy a strongly connected network between their representatives in parliament, the Al Ahrar Bloc, and their political bureaus in the provinces. While the prime minister receives local officials in his office in Baghdad, Sadrist members of parliament travel to all of the southern provinces to listen to constituent demands and congratulate local bureaus on their achievements. Competition is high over tribal support. While the Maliki-sponsored 'Tribal Support Councils' have co-opted several southern sheiks over the past years, the Sadrists are winning them over by proposing irrigation projects and improving services in the areas they control."
The context for this is that Maliki can access the highest levers of power in Baghdad, but relies on the Sadr movement to penetrate Iraqi society, which is necessary to maintain power. The conduct of politics as described by Fantassie shows the persistence of patronage networks and informal ties in Iraqi politics. In this type of political economy, the Sadrists can do what other Islamist organizations have done in different Arab countries and fill public service gaps. At the same time, they seem to be serving as a mediator between state and society in a way they did with regional Ba'ath governors during the 1990's. Whether they can actually parlay that into a greater share of power at the top remains to be seen.
(Crossposted to American Footprints)