This article was published in Arab News on May 21, 2018.
Iraq sets a good example by abandoning sectarianism
There’s a joke that says that the US always does the right thing, but only after trying all other options. What happened in Iraq is perhaps a concrete example of this. The results of the May 12 parliamentary elections surprised only the observers who knew this country superficially.
The elections were held to vote in 329 members of the Council of Representatives, which will in its turn elect the president of the republic and the prime minister of Iraq. US’ involvement in Iraq’s democratization process produced an unintended by-product that may set a good example for the region’s countries: A relatively de-sectarianized parliament.
In 2006, the US lent its support to a little-known politician, Nouri Al-Maliki, the leader of the Shiite Islamic Dawa Party, because it did not threaten anyone. Once he became prime minister, however, Al-Maliki devoted, with strong Iranian support, most of his efforts to a sectarian agenda. At one stage, both the US and Iran were supporting the Al-Maliki government without direct coordination between them. This contributed to leveling the ground for the emergence of Daesh and its lightning victories in Iraq. Sunni forces initially showed a reluctance to oppose Daesh, partly because of their reaction to Al-Maliki’s policies. Al-Maliki’s government divided Iraqi society to such an extent that, eventually, Iran withdrew its support and he was removed from his post.
The practices of Iraq’s previous ruler ushered in Al-Maliki’s anti-Sunni philosophy, and his policies in turn ushered in the reaction of the Sunni community. Al-Maliki’s successor, Haider Abadi, made laudable efforts in de-sectarianizing Iraq’s domestic policy.
Shiite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr’s coalition emerged from this month’s elections with a surprising victory by gaining 54 seats in the Council of Representatives, 20 more than the previous election — this corresponds to a 59 percent increase. The most interesting part of his success is not only the number of seats, but also the composition of his alliance. In addition to his own party, the Sadrist Movement, the bloc also includes the Iraqi Communist Party, the Youth Movement for Change Party, the Iraqi Republican Group, the Party of Progress and Reform, and the State of Justice Party. The names of the parties that constitute the alliance give an idea about its non-sectarian character.
Another important feature of the bloc is that, despite the fact that the leading party, the Sadrist Movement, is undoubtedly a Shiite organization, Al-Sadr is a strong Arab (or Iraqi) nationalist. In other words, the result cannot be interpreted as a victory for Iran.
And, in addition to his political leadership, Al-Sadr is also the leader of a Shiite militia called Saraya Al-Salam. This militia was initially established under the name of the Mahdi Army to oppose the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Therefore, his success must have disappointed the US as well as Iran.
The number of seats won by Al-Sadr’s bloc is relatively unimportant compared to the total number of seats in the Council of Representatives, but he is a very important political figure. Therefore his rise as a political actor will have consequences in Iraqi domestic policy.
Al-Sadr is a strong political and militia leader, but one swallow does not make a summer.
In view of this background, one may conclude that the biggest losers of the election are the US and Iran. Firstly because Al-Sadr has always kept his distance from Iran, and secondly because he started his political career as a strong opponent of the US.
Another important result of this process was that not only Al-Sadr, but also the leaders of other Iraqi political movements, conducted their campaigns on a non-sectarian basis and tried to reach the electorate beyond their sectarian and ethnic clients. This may lead to an issue-based political affiliation during the post-election period. This will be perhaps the most important outcome of the elections. It may set a good example for other countries in the region to adopt policies not guided only by confessional and sectarian motives, which is badly needed both at domestic level and in inter-state relations in the Middle East.
It is still too early to draw conclusions from the elections results. Al-Sadr is a strong political and militia leader, but one swallow does not make a summer. It is not yet certain that he will be the only game-changer in Iraqi domestic policy. Even if he becomes a more important political actor in Iraq, it is not realistic to expect that this tendency for a de-sectarianized policy will be adopted by others in the region.