Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Shia Gear Up for Elections

Upcoming ballot is seen as an opportunity to secure power and influence for majority faction.
By Dhiya Ressan

Leaders of Iraq’s Shia majority have begun to lobby hard for their community’s participation in the January elections.

It comes as some Sunni representatives urge Iraqis to boycott the ballot.

The Shia, who form around 60 per cent of the population, see the parliamentary elections as an opportunity to assert themselves politically, and their religious leaders are strongly urging followers to take part in the ballot.

Despite being the majority community, the Shia have long been subordinate to the Sunni in Iraqi politics, dating back to their decision in the early twenties to boycott institutions created by the British during their occupation of the country.

Shia leaders see the upcoming poll as a chance to reverse their followers’ lowly status, which was cemented during the Saddam era.

Grand Ayatollah Mohammed al-Yaccubi, leader of the al-Fadhila party, has said that voting is as important a duty for Shia as prayers and fasting.

“These two duties are … between a person and his God, but elections are a duty related to the destiny of a nation,” he said.

Iraq’s most revered Shia leader, Grand Ayatollah Sayid Ali al-Sistani, ordered his followers to participate in the vote, and his representative in Kerbala, Ahmad al-Safi, warned in a Friday sermon that abstaining “is a betrayal of the nation” which would consign them to hell.

Sistani has also asked his representatives to form committees - comprising members of all faiths - to provide information and guidance to Iraqis in the run-up to the 2005 elections, which he regards as vitally important to the future of Iraq.

Sheik Adel al-Ramahi, Sistani’s representative in east Baghdad and a committee supervisor, has called for the last day of January – voting day – to be declared a public holiday to reduce the chances of people abstaining for work reasons.

The statement added that the Hawza - the highest Shia religious authority - had agreed with the government that the elections should be held.

Shia religious parties such as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, SCIRI, and the Islamic Dawa party, are also stepping up their electoral efforts, and are considering forming a single Shia-only bloc.

Ahmed Rasheed, head of Dawa’s election media body, told IWPR that the party’s leadership is negotiating with senior ayatollahs in Najaf and with other movements including SCIRI and the al-Fadhila to form a unified Shia list for the elections.

In an interview with the London-based Arabic Al-Hayat newspaper, SCIRI political relations chief Ridha Jawad Taqi said that the party had a number of options at its disposal.

He said it would opt for a Shia-only ticket if there’s no national unified list.

Taqi said discussions about the latter are taking place with other parties, the Iraqi National Accord headed by Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, as well as the Iraqi National Congress led by Ahmed Chalabi, the Dawa party, the Sadrist movement, and independent Shia figures Mohammed Baher al-Uloom and Salama al-Khafagi.

However, the Sadrists - led by the young cleric Moqtada al-Sadr - may join forces with Sheik Jawad al-Khalisi, imam of the al-Hussein mosque in Kazimia in Baghdad.

Al-Khalisi, who heads the National Congress Rally, had previously indicted that his party “will participate in elections with a national … not a sectarian list”.

This Shia group has proposed forming a list with the Association of Moslem Scholars - a Sunni religious group. The trouble is that it opposes the occupation, and to date has refused to participate in any election held under current conditions.

Its spokesperson Sheik Mohammed Bashar al-Fadhi told IWPR, “We call upon Iraqis to boycott the elections that will allow [foreign] agents to illegally rule Iraq.”

He added that this stance was decided after consultations with a large number of scholars and imams, and the secretary general of the Board of Calling and Guidance, a Sunni Salafi organisation.

Its chief Sheik Mahdi al-Somaida’ai, who also preaches at Baghdad’s Ibn Taimiya mosque, has said that, under the present circumstances, any election held under occupation “will be not honest and transparent”.

Dhiya Ressan is a Baghdad-based journalist.