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Iraqis Welcome Move Away From Sectarianism

Winning lists promoted secular and nationalist agendas, as Iraqis appear to turn their backs on the politics of conflict. By IWPR-trained journalists
By IWPR

The triumph of nationalist and secularist coalitions in recent parliamentary election is an encouraging sign that the country is moving away from sectarianism, ordinary Iraqis say.

A small representative group of Iraqis interviewed by IWPR indicated that while they remain concerned about foreign interference and political infighting, many were heartened by the performances of Iraqiya and the State of Law alliances which together won more than half of Iraq’s 325 parliamentary seats.

Iraqiya, a mainly secularist coalition led by former prime minister Ayad Allawi, and State of Law, a nationalist alliance headed by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, acquired 91 and 89 respectively.

Many here interpreted the results as signalling a move away from the sectarianism that ripped the country apart just months after the December 2005 parliamentary elections.

“We are optimistic about the future as the talks between the winning lists are leaning toward nationalism,” said Uday Kahim Talib, a 36-year-old civil servant who voted for Iraqiya in Baghdad. “Most of the blocs want a national rather than a sectarian government, which is a good thing.”

Amir Mohammad Rasoul, a 38-year-old teacher from Najaf who voted for State of Law, said that while the competition between secular and nationalist coalitions had been fierce, the election results “indicate that the public is leaning [away from] sectarian ones.

“Sectarianism burdened the country with many problems and we don’t want to return to it.”

Nonetheless, some sectarian groups did do well. Voters loyal to the radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who still enjoys enormous influence among poor, religious Shia, turned out in force to vote for his movement.

The latter won the majority of seats in the Iraqi National Alliance, a Shia-led coalition of mostly religious candidates. [See Special Report: Sadr Followers Bask in Poll Success]

State of Law gained power in last year’s provincial council elections, an early indication that Iraqis were turning away from sectarianism.

Formerly a smaller player in Iraqi politics, Iraqiya triumphed in the recent election by aligning itself with several influential Sunni Arab candidates as well as secular Shias and ethnic and religious minorities.

Iraqiya supporters were emboldened by the coalition’s surprise upset and maintained that it signified a new era in Iraqi politics. While some Sunni Arab Iraqiya allies, including former Iraqi Islamic Party leader Tariq al-Hashimi are Islamists, many have more secular credentials.

Allawi, a secular Shia, and Maliki, a Shia who champions nationalism, are political foes who nonetheless have a common stand on several issues.

The two leaders are considered strongmen who believe that nationalism and a powerful central government are integral to the country’s security and stability, but they have clashed over the government’s efforts to root out Baathists from both politics and senior civil servant posts.

Maliki’s support of the de-Baathification campaign has drawn the ire of Sunni Arab leaders, many of whom are allied with Allawi.

Their battle for the premiership is already underway amid widespread speculation that forming a government could take months as blocs haggle over top posts in the administration.

The sectarian and ethnic identities of leaders are likely to be a key consideration as positions are divvied up.

The political rivalries are of concern to Iraqis, many of whom told IWPR they are not as concerned about delays in forming the government as they are about post-election tensions.

“The tight race between Maliki and Allawi across Iraq and Allawi and the Kurds in Kirkuk will increase tensions,” said Lawa Hussein, a 26-year-old civil servant who voted for the Kurdistani Alliance in Kirkuk, a bitterly contested part of the country.

Another concern among Iraqis IWPR spoke to was leading politician links with neighbouring countries.

Several top politicians, including Maliki and Iraqi president Jalal Talabani, who is seeking re-election, visited Iran shortly after the election results were announced. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, reportedly views Allawi favourably as a leader who will represent Arab interests and curb Iranian influence.

Allawi has pressed for stronger ties with Sunni Arab countries and is critical of Iranian influence in Iraq, as well as being a long-time ally of the Americans.

Many ordinary Iraqis are fearful that foreign states have too much of a say in the way Iraq is governed.

“The truth is that the big players in Iraqi politics will just sit and take orders from Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States,” said Mohammed Hamza Sighair, a 49-year-old cab driver in Baghdad who did not vote. “We only want simple things like security, water and power and basic jobs to earn a living.”

IWPR-trained reporters Ali Kareem in Baghdad, Samah Samad in Kirkuk, Abdul Hussein Ridda in Najaf, Ali Mohammed in Diyala and Ali Abu Iraq in Basra contributed to this report.
IWPR Iraq local editor Hemin H Lihony reported from Sulaimaniyah.