Iraq Eyes Post-Sectarian Politics

Diverse alliances expected to contest January parliamentary election.

Iraq Eyes Post-Sectarian Politics

Diverse alliances expected to contest January parliamentary election.

Wednesday, 30 December, 2009
Iraq’s powerful Shia parties are forming new alliances that claim to favour nationalist agendas, signalling that the country may be inching away from sectarian politics.

On the heels of a rift with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Shia Dawa party, top Shia parties last week created their first-ever multi-confessional coalition to contest the January 2010 parliamentary elections.

The leadership of the newly-formed Iraqi National Alliance is dominated by conservative Shia parties and leaders - including the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, ISCI, the Fadhila party and loyalists of the anti-American Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. However, the alliance also includes secularists, Sunnis and other religious and ethnic minorities.

“Since security has stabilised, ISCI has determined that citizens’ needs have changed,” said Muna Zalzala, a member of parliament for the party. “People do not focus on sect or religion, but instead on services and prosperity and [the party] that will provide that. The coalitions have changed as a result. Our new alliance is based on national rather than sectarian interests.”

The Iraqi National Alliance’s shift toward pluralism is part of a larger trend away from the sectarian politics that have plagued Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Sunni and Shia parties have indicated they will seek allies across religious and ethnic lines – a strategy that could pay off for some leaders. However, critics have argued that Iraqi politics remains firmly entrenched in sectarianism and that any changes are merely cosmetic.

The 275-member parliament will choose the next prime minister, who will likely need broad support from Shias, Sunnis, Kurds and other minority groups.

The Iraqi National Alliance could compete with a nationalist-driven coalition led by Maliki’s Shia Dawa party, which is pledging to focus its campaign on secular issues such as security and services.

The agenda won over voters in the February 2009 provincial council elections, when Dawa and its allies gained power in many provinces that had previously been governed by religious parties. Corruption, services and security proved important issues for voters, who threw out incumbents nationwide.

The election was considered a crucial turning point in Iraq’s politics, which had been dominated by leaders pushing sectarian and ethnic agendas. Many claim sectarian parties and militias divided the country and caused Iraq’s bloody civil war following the 2003 invasion.

Abdullah Jafar, a retired political science professor, noted that secular parties had run religious campaigns to attract voters in the 2005 parliamentary poll. The strategies in this election will be the opposite, he said.

“Even sectarian and religious parties will try to ally with secular parties or lists,” he said. “The Islamic game in Iraq is over.”

Dawa is betting its issues-driven agenda from the provincial council poll will pull in voters again, and is intending to stump for parliamentary seats with a diverse coalition to attract a wide range of voters.

Abdul Hadi al-Hasani, a Dawa official, said the party “aims to create a nationalistic, non-sectarian coalition that includes all sects, ethnicities, minorities and tribes”.

“There is no doubt that Shias are the majority of the population in Iraq,” he said. “But the point is that we will be nationalistic, not sectarian. We don’t aim to only attract Shia voters.”

Divisions among rival Shia parties – which have ruled Baghdad for the last several years – have contributed to the creation of coalitions that are more diverse. Dawa recently broke from the United Iraqi Alliance, the leading Shia parliamentary coalition, over power struggles with other Shia parties.

Dawa officials told IWPR that the party is still considering joining the Iraqi National Alliance, which would strengthen the Shia-led bloc.

But whether Dawa can resolve its disputes with the other Shia parties remains unclear. Dawa leaders said regardless of the list, Maliki aims to run alongside Sunnis, Kurds, secularists and leaders of other ethnic and religious minorities.

Dawa party official Ali Jaber al-Basri said the party “will not join sectarian coalitions as it has done in the past. These coalitions didn’t work well.”

He said that Maliki had originally spearheaded the idea of a non-sectarian, Shia-led coalition, including the name, Iraqi National Alliance.

The Iraqi National Alliance “can’t use the old name ‘United Iraqi Alliance’ because it makes people think of Shia sectarianism”, he said.

Tawafiq, a leading Sunni Arab bloc, is also seeking to join multi-ethnic and multi-sectarian alliances, said Shatha al-Obosi, a Sunni deputy with the Iraqi Islamic party. She said Sunni Arab parties would likely run split lists and would accept other sects or ethnicities holding power if they were inclusive.

“We expected sectarianism would end one day, and it seems like that day has come,” she said.

“The recent change is a message to the Iraqi citizen: ‘You are the one who decides, not the politician.’”

Some believe that the diverse lists could merely be window-dressing to please voters, however. The Iraqi National Alliance is led by 11 Shia parties and includes only one well-known Sunni leader.

If Maliki forms his own list, it will be led by Dawa, a conservative Shia party inspired by the 1979 Iranian revolution that has only recently rebranded itself as a nationalist entity. During his term as prime minister, Maliki has clashed with both Sunnis and Kurds, and major parties from both groups have yet to announce their coalitions.

And the Marjaiya, the assembly of top Shia clerics in Najaf led by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, still carries substantial weight in politics.

A student studying under the Marjaiya, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorised to speak to the media, speculated that Sistani “has not blessed Maliki’s alliance yet. If he had, Maliki would have formed his own list.”

However, Abdul Hadi al-Hasani, a Dawa party deputy, insisted the top Shia clerics did not influence politics."The Marjaiya does not interfere in these issues," he said.

Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish member of parliament, said coalitions were “based less on sectarianism” but had not transcended it. “They are not non-sectarian lists.”

Alliances are “changing their faces, but at the core, they remain the same”, he said.

Othman predicted that Sunnis and Kurds would create independent alliances. If Dawa joins the Iraqi National Alliance, he said, “then sectarianism will keep dominating Iraqi politics. We have to wait and see.”

Jafar, the political analyst, said alliances were creating diverse lists only to appeal to voters, but indicated that the move away from sectarianism was a step in the right direction.

“Staying in the cycle of sectarianism means continued strife among politicians and violence among Iraqi sects. This could stoke a civil war any time,” he said.

“We are a multi-sectarian and multi-ethnic country, so we need peaceful, non-sectarian politics,” Jafar added. “This is how we can create a peaceful life in Iraq.”

Abeer Mohammed is an IWPR-trained journalist in Baghdad.
Iraqi Kurdistan, Iraq
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