Welcome to Iraq’s First Post-Sectarian Election

Iraqi politicians are finally crossing ethnic and religious lines. But how long can the good vibes last?

A torn up campaign poster for Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, for the upcoming parliamentary elections in the capital of the northern Iraqi Kurdish autonomous region Arbil. (SAFIN HAMED / AFP)
A torn up campaign poster for Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, for the upcoming parliamentary elections in the capital of the northern Iraqi Kurdish autonomous region Arbil. (SAFIN HAMED / AFP)

KHALIDIYA, Iraq — Just a few years ago, Mohamed Shabaan was leading a band of young Sunni fighters along the muddy banks of the Euphrates River, locked in a no-holds-barred battle against the Islamic State that cost his city more than 100 young men.

Now, the Anbar province tribal sheikh dons a suit instead of mismatched camouflage fatigues and carries a mobile phone instead of an assault rifle. The one-time paratrooper for Saddam Hussein’s armed forces is running as a candidate for parliament on the list of the Shiite prime minister, Haider al-Abadi. It’s part of a trend of post-Islamic State cross-sectarian alliances, most notably Abadi’s own, that has some Iraqis and analysts hoping that the country’s May 12 general elections can deliver long-lasting — and long-elusive — stability.

“We believe this is a very critical moment for change,” Shabaan said during an interview in March in his hometown, east of Ramadi, the provincial capital. “The minds of the people of Anbar have changed,” he added. “The violence in their minds has lowered. They are seeking life and not violence. We want to stop sectarianism and open Anbar to the world.”

The rise of the Islamic State heightened sectarian tensions in the Middle East, especially in Syria and between rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia in Persian Gulf. But in Iraq, it has brought Sunnis and Shiites closer together — at least temporarily.

In 2014, Abadi, then a parliament backbencher belonging to the Shiite fundamentalist Islamic Dawa Party, became prime minister as a compromise candidate after Mosul’s fall at the hands of surging Islamic State fighters. Replacing the toxic Nouri al-Maliki, who was widely perceived as corrupt and sectarian, Abadi has sought to reach out to Sunnis and other minorities, repair relations with Iraq’s neighbors, and root out or at least call out corruption.

Another Shiite coalition led by former Iranian-backed militia leader Hadi al-Amiri has joined forces with Sunni militia leaders who battled against the Islamic State. Meanwhile, Moqtada al-Sadr, the firebrand cleric who launched postwar Iraq’s first Shiite militias in 2003, has teamed up with the Iraqi Communist Party and reached out to Sunni politicians.

“The new development is that all these corrupt sectarian leaders and warlords have been forced to form alliances with non-Shia and non-Islamist allies,” says Thanassis Cambanis, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation. He recently spent several weeks in Iraq assembling a report about the Shiite political landscape. “Before, everyone who had power was a Shia Islamist. But it’s no longer a defining source of difference.”

Iraqis hope the elections will blur the sectarian divisions that have bedeviled the country for decades but were exacerbated by the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled the Baath Party rule of Saddam. The country’s top Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, issued a call on May 4 demanding that “competition between parties and election candidates must center on economic, educational, and social service programs that can be realistically implemented; to be avoided are narcissism [and] inflammatory sectarian and nationalist rhetoric.”

Abadi in particular has sought to chart a course different from the practices of his predecessor that were perceived as corrupt and sectarian. He has set the tone, forcing other candidates to adjust. Unlike Maliki, he has mostly resisted the temptation to use the instruments of state — such as the public broadcaster or government coffers — to his advantage. Instead, he has been running a Western-style grassroots political campaign focused on building coalitions, going from town to town and city to city throughout the country to attract voters. Whereas Maliki often used divisive language to scare Shiites into voting for him, Abadi’s rhetoric has been inclusive. Last month, Abadi became Iraq’s first Shiite prime minister to hold a campaign event in Anbar province, which is overwhelmingly Sunni.

“The Iraqis are stronger than plots to divide them, and we are very proud of our diversity,” he reportedly said at the event.

He has even held rallies in the Kurdish cities of Erbil and Sulaimaniya despite tensions that remain high between the Baghdad government and Iraq’s Kurds since Abadi’s forces seized control of territory long under Kurdish control following a controversial independence referendum last September.

“Other folks have been doing the same style campaigns,” says an official of a U.S. government-funded democracy promotion organization, speaking on the condition that he not be identified. “They’re all trying to show they have grassroots support one way or the other.”

It’s important not to get too carried away. One analyst likens Iraq’s Shiite and Sunni cooperation to Italian and Irish mobsters in New York putting aside their differences and joining forces to win an election. Another describes the political alliances as temporary partnerships that grew out of the war on the Islamic State and are unlikely to outlast it.

“The prolonged conflict and period of uncertainty incentivized each individual leader to make a play for the future by trying to get weapons and support for men but also through political maneuvering, which sometimes created strange bedfellow coalitions,” says Erica Gaston, a researcher at the Global Public Policy Institute and co-author of a report about Iraqi armed groups.

Iraq’s political class is riddled with incompetence and corruption that have eaten away at public trust in the country’s democracy. During the opening ceremony of a new $84 million, 30,000-seat stadium in Najaf on May 5, the crowd began booing politicians attempting to speak, chanting, “You are all thieves.”

Any alliances built during the campaign season could easily collapse in the grueling weeks or even months of coalition building that have typically followed Iraq’s general elections and have been particularly dangerous periods of drift and potential chaos. Once the parties begin counting seats, all the pre-election alliances could dissolve. Shiite politicians could form a majority bloc that excludes others. Kurds who have been squabbling may see uniting as in their interests. Sunnis again could be left out in the political wilderness.

“What you have now is the step for political blocks to get a seat at the table,” says Lukman Faily, a former Iraqi diplomat. “The process for government formation is different altogether.”

Though the election may not change the substance of Iraq’s distribution of power, it may solidify the country’s move away from hardened sectarianism that plunged it into civil war a decade ago. A number of factors have led analysts to wonder if Iraq has turned a corner.

One is the unifying spirit of the war against the Islamic State and the devastation the conflict has wrought on Sunni cities and areas that resisted both the U.S. occupation and the subsequent Shiite-dominated political order.

“There’s increased buy-in from areas that were more prone toward a more rejectionist, skeptical stance toward Baghdad,” says Fanar Haddad, an Iraq specialist at the National University of Singapore. “Today, there’s a sense that this political order is here to stay. And there’s room for everyone to secure their interests through it.”

Another change is the fragmentation within all three of Iraq’s major communities, which may force them to find allies outside their ethno-sectarian communities. Over the last several years, Kurdish and Shiite parties have been squabbling with each other as much if not more than ethnic or sectarian rivals. That may augur well for Iraq’s political stability.

“Something significant is afoot,” Cambanis says. “In the best-case scenario, these movements will adopt actual ideologies, platforms, and policies.”

A decrease in sectarianism may also be a result of Abadi’s successful bolstering of relations with all of Iraq’s neighbors, as well as regional and international powers. Baghdad today not only has good relations with the United States and Iran — rivals that are Iraq’s primary benefactors — but also Russia, China, and the European Union. More significantly, Abadi has improved Iraq’s relations with the region’s Sunni powers, primarily Turkey and Saudi Arabia, as well as the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council states. Those countries had actively shunned Iraq for years under its previous leaders and allegedly used the country to settle scores against Iran by funding or encouraging armed sectarian groups.

“I don’t think Maliki could have done that in a thousand years,” says Haddad, referring to Abadi’s regional bridge building. Iraq will soon find out whether the political bridges the prime minister has built at home are equally durable.

Borzou Daragahi is an Istanbul-based journalist who has covered the Middle East for more than 16 years. Twitter: @borzou

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