Friday,21 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1355, (3-9 August 2017)
Friday,21 September, 2018
Issue 1355, (3-9 August 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Can Iraq move beyond sectarianism?

A closer look at attempts by Iraq’s Shia ruling cliques to ditch sectarian politics reveals that they are just old wine in new bottles, writes Salah Nasrawi


Can Iraq move beyond sectarianism?
Can Iraq move beyond sectarianism?

Seeking a reset following two years of nationwide anti-corruption protests and mounting accusations of incompetence, nepotism and abuse of power, Iraq’s incumbent Shia groups have begun seeking a change in their fortunes by rebranding themselves as “non-sectarian.”

Attempts to adopt the new “civic” model, also shared by their Sunni partners in government, have come as Iraq’s sectarian divisions deepen and the war against the Islamic State (IS) terror group has been changing the country’s political landscape beyond recognition.

On 24 July, Iraqi Shia cleric Ammar Al-Hakim announced he was establishing a new political movement with a nationalist appeal to replace his 35-year-old religious-oriented and Iran-backed Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq (SICI).

In a televised speech, Al-Hakim described his new movement, the National Wisdom Trend, as “a new birth” for Iraq and promised that it would be “all-inclusive” and embrace all Iraqi religious and ethnic components.

Al-Hakim also vowed that the new movement would fight corruption in the government and ensure the equal distribution of Iraq’s national assets, a key demand from reformists and the country’s Sunni minority.

Al-Hakim’s announcement came amid reports that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi was also planning to break with his Islamic Daawa Party and form a new movement to compete in next year’s parliamentary elections.

Al-Abadi is reportedly planning to launch his new political bloc to run the elections independently from his party, which is headed by his powerful rival Vice-President Nouri Al-Maliki, a close ally of Iran.

Iraqi media reports have suggested that Al-Abadi has succeeded in enlisting scores of Daawa Party members as well as other parties into his new bloc. His plans include forming a larger alliance that will bring together both Shia and Sunni factions.

Firebrand Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr has also been working on redefining himself as a moderate politician and nationalist patriot. Since summer 2015, Al-Sadr has been leading protests by supporters to demand deep reforms in the government.

Al-Sadr has been arguing that the current rules were tailored to serve Iraq’s leading parties, which he has been accusing of maintaining a tight hold on power and of corruption and nepotism.

His main demands include reforming the country’s election laws and reining in the Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF), an umbrella group of Shia militias, many of which are slated to participate in the upcoming elections.

On the other hand, the main Sunni bloc in the Iraqi parliament announced last month that it was forming a broad new political alliance and seeking a new leadership for what it called a “new future” for Iraq’s Sunnis.

Although much debate in recent years has focused on the dangers of the sectarian polices practised by Iraq’s ruling elites, questions have now been raised about the reasons behind the sudden change of mind within these groups which have long thrived on confessionalism.

In a narrow sense, the crisis in Iraq following the rise of IS was unprecedented and was the result of a range of problems that had built up over time exposing the incompetence of the political system established after the US-led invasion in 2003 that empowered the sectarian parties.

Fourteen years after they came to power, these parties have failed to transcend sectarian policies that have been the main cause of communal divisions in Iraq and the perpetuation of the country’s national crisis.

In addition to their failure to provide a credible non-sectarian alternative, Iraq’s ruling elites have also been largely responsible for the country’s rampant corruption, profligacy and cronyism.

The sorry record of the country’s corruption has been blamed for increasing public resentment even by these parties’ Shia power base which feels it has been cheated and manipulated by dominant elites.  

Corruption has also been responsible for maintaining the country’s enduring sectarian divide, and, worse still, the seemingly never-ending cycle of violence and terrorism.

Most importantly, the vast majority of Iraqi Shias have been battered by frequent broken promises by party leaders to improve living conditions and poor public services, and they appear to be ready to break their attachment to parties which have thrived on championing Shia causes.

Iraq’s national crisis has left the ruling parties in a mess, with popular support withering and old allegiances fading. Moreover, splits and in-fighting have left these parties in tatters, apart from the anti-Sunni parliamentary coalition that glues them together.

Another key factor behind the sudden urge for political transformation felt by these parties is the surge of Shia militias that rose to prominence following their active participation in the war against IS.

Shia political groups fear that the leaders of these muscle-bound rivals will capitalise on their newly acquired power to enter Iraq’s political arena and participate in the forthcoming elections.

As a key player in Iraq, Iran’s role in supporting and probably encouraging the revisions by its Shia allies in Iraq cannot be completely ruled out, though this has come for tactical reasons.

In an editorial on 25 July, the Islamic Republic’s official news agency IRNA wrote that “old [Shia political] formations” established during the struggle against former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s regime and after its fall in 2003 were no longer capable of dealing with the “new realities in Iraq.”

On any account, post-IS Iraq will need a new political game that will require new rules. Political gridlock, demographic shifts and economic inequalities are just some of the challenges the country faces.

The war against IS has shaken Iraq’s ruling classes to the core, and if they do not move beyond sectarian divisions and towards something totally original for new times and a new future, the ruling elites will not be able to stay in command and control.  

Add the unpredictability brought by the IS defeat and there may be an uncertain future in store for a country that is already fraught with ethnic and sectarian struggles.

At present, there is no chance of a political opening that could lead to serious reforms in Iraq’s governing system ending the ugly chapter of sectarian politics and the instability they have caused.

Iraqis believe their ruling elites lack the will to adopt real political reforms, abandon sectarianism and fight corruption. They believe that the leaders of the country’s political groups are only ready to make cosmetic concessions in order to stay in power.   

Iraqis are sick and tired of their country’s state of affairs, but for most of them recent claims of a rebranding of the Islamic-oriented and sectarian parties are dismissed as just so many attempts to pour old wine into broken bottles.


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