Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Is Iraq Turning the Corner on Sectarian Politics?

One of the questions raised by the withdrawal of US troops from Iraqi cities is whether Iraq has moved away from the sectarian violence that characterized the country at its high point between 2005 and 2007. Answers to the question are critical if Iraq is to make progress in achieving political stability, a prerequisite for engaging in a serious process of narrow reconciliation.
In a short article, “Reflections on Religion and Politics in Post-Bacthist Iraq,” (http://fas-polisci.rutgers,edu), I argued for a distinction between ethnic hostility and ethnic violence. All ethnically divided countries experince varying degress of ethnic tensions. But that deos not mean such tensions explode into violence.
An article in the June 25th edition of al-Hayat, “Khalid 'Atiya to al-Hayat: The Investigations are Just Electioneering Propaganda Whose Object is Ministers of a Particular Sect,” includes an interview with the First Deputy Speaker of the Iraqi Parliament, Khalid 'Atiya. The interview underscores that sectarian tensions still influence the work of Parliament Khalid 'Atiya complains that the efforts to summon cabinet ministers to appear before parliament to answer to changes of corruption and mismanagement in their ministries is politically motivated. With the Sunni Arab speaker of the Parliament a well-known for of Prime Minster Nuri al-Maliki, it is understandable that Deputy Speaker ‘Atiya might view these procedures as anti-Shi’a and hence sectarian in nature. The problem with such an interpretation is that the head of Parliament’s Anti-Corruption Committee is a Shi'i himself and a member of the al-Fadila Party whose power base is in the southern port city of Basra.
What is much more significant about this article is cAtiya’s focus on the need to reconstitute the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) which was the coalition of Shi'i political parties that dominated the December 2005 parliamentary elections. Since that time, the Sadrist Trend (Mahdi Army) and Fadila Party have left the Alliance and relations between the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council and Maliki’s Da'wa Party have become strained. at this points to first and foremost is that the Shi'i community in Iraq is politically diverse. More importantly, it points to the temporary nature of the Shi'i coalition which reflected more the fear of a Ba'thist effort to regain power in 2005 and the need for solidarity in light of the fact that the Shi'a had never controlled the reigns of government before. This the turn to clerical support and the solidarity of the major Shi'i parties was more a response to uncertainty than ideological unity.
Even more interesting in the interview with Khalid 'Atiya was his argument that a reconstituted UIA would need to reflect the interests of the Shi'i community but would also have to open its doors to parties dominated by other ethnic groups. He specifically mentioned Sunni Arabs and Kurds. Although these comments may be seen as an attempt to humor the reporter conducting the interview and to appeal to al-Hayat’s readership, the increasing need for Iraqi politicians to appeal to a large Iraqi national identity as opposed to a more narrow ethnoconfessional appeal points to the increasing difficulties sectarian force face in Iraq. The rejection of sectarianism was clear in the January 2009 Provincial Council elections, which Khalid 'Atiya blames in part for promoting the more assertive nature of the Parliament.
Despite the cynicism that may underlie Deputy Speaker 'Atiya’s comments, the symbolism of his position is important. It sends a message to political actors and voters alike that the emphasis in political mobilization should be on Iraqiness, and not on one’s ethnoconfessional background. The question then becomes why does Khalid c
'Atiya feel the need to move beyond sectarian appeals to a narrow Shi’i political base?
The answer lies both in Iraqi public opinion which, having seen the violence and corruption that sectarian political parties bring to the political process, reject such Politics. It also reflects the impact of a nascent democracy in Iraq. While next year’s parliamentary elections may yield some very problematic outcomes, such as giving Nuri al-Maliki a mandate to impose an increasingly authoritarian rule on Iraq, Khalid 'Atiya and all the other deputies in parliament have to worry about their political longevity. As the Provincial legislative elections demonstrated, voters often “throw the rascals out.” In a democracy, broad based appeals that seek to form working coalitions trump narrow based appeals that reduces the number of potential supporters among the electorate.
It is small steps, such as those indicated in the interview with First deputy Speaker Khalid 'Atiya that may point to a more stable, tolerant and democratic Iraq