Shi’i success in Iraqi elections does not settle questions about country’s political future

Developing Just Leadership

Nasr Salem

Muharram 20, 1426 2005-03-01

Occupied Arab World

by Nasr Salem (Occupied Arab World, Crescent International Vol. 34, No. 1, Muharram, 1426)

In many ways, the results of the recent elections in Iraq have come as no surprise. The United Iraqi Coalition (UIC), the Shi’a Muslim slate sponsored by Grand Ayatullah Ali al-Hussayni al-Sistani, got 48 percent of the 275 seats in the new national assembly; a Kurdish alliance 25 percent; and US-backed interim prime minister Iyad Allawi’s list 14 percent. Also not at all surprising was the very low participation of the Sunni Arabs, who constitute some 20 percent of the population, in the general election.

With the announcement of the election’s results, the profound shift in the placement of political power in post-Saddam Iraq was officially confirmed. The election helped Shi’a Muslims, who comprise about 60 percent of the population, to translate their numerical weight into political power. This ushers in a new era, in which the Iraqi Shi’a community, which has been politically marginalised in the modern Iraqi state formed after the dismemberment of the Ottoman state, is becoming the dominant group.

But the victory of the UIC at the ballot-boxes is not helping its constituent groups to resolve their differences about how to distribute the electoral rewards in terms of political office; indeed, this victory seems to have made these difficulties worse. These differences were shown by the intensive talks to appoint Iraq’s next prime minister from among the UIC leaders, before naming Ibrahim Jaafari, leader of the Dawa Party, as its candidate for the premiership on February 22. His appointment depends, however, on agreement with other parties, as the 48 percent of seats that the UIC has managed to secure are much less than the two-thirds majority required by the Interim State Administration Law, Iraq’s interim constitution, to form a government.

So the UIC has to build alliances with other lists in order to form a government. The obvious choice is to form a coalition government with the Kurds. But that will not be easy. Apart from the general and vague aim of erasing the traces of Saddam Hussein’s rule, the two groups, who both suffered a great deal from the brutality of the Ba’ath party, disagree on a range of substantial issues, from the status of the city of Kirkuk to the role of Islam in the new Iraq. A power-sharing deal between the UIC and the Kurds would involve giving the latter some key ministries and some important policy concessions.

In contrast with the UIC’s internal differences, the Kurds appear to be the most cohesive group in the new national assembly. This makes them important power-brokers in the fledgling political scene. The rise of the Kurds is expected to secure the presidency for Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Yet the Kurds’ yearnings for independence and the demands they are making to expand their autonomous territory and get a larger share of Iraq’s oil revenues will inevitably put more strains on Iraq’s “national unity”. One issue that combines many of these strains is the status of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. The Kurds are demanding that Kirkuk be made part of a Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq, a possibility that is strongly opposed by the Turkomans and Arabs. The rise of the Kurdish factor is therefore a source of many problems. Not only do the Kurds have a strong desire for independence, but their relationship with the Iraqi state has always been shaped by hostility and rancour.

The miasma of fear, chaos and intimidation generated by insurgent and counter-insurgent violence in the Sunni-dominated central region was a powerful deterrent, dissuading many people from going to the polls. For some Sunni Arabs, especially in areas where tribal norms are still dominant, the very idea of taking part in elections held under the turrets and bayonets of American occupation troops was considered abominable and disgraceful. The abysmal turnout of the Sunni Arabs explains to some extent why the two Sunni parties that did not boycott the election did poorly at the polls. The list headed by Iraqi interim president Ghazi al-Yawar won five seats, whereas the list headed by Adnan al-Pachachi, a former Iraqi foreign minister, failed to win even a single seat.

Yet soon after the results had been announced, a re-evaluation of the Sunni position toward participation in the political process became apparent. This re-evaluation was seen at a conference held in Baghdad in the presence of some 200 people, including tribal chiefs and representatives of the Sunni parties and delegations from the provinces of Baghdad, Kirkuk, Salaheddin, Diyala, Anbar and Ninavah. In a speech that he delivered at the conference, Dr ‘Adnan al-Dulaymi, chairman of the Sunni waqf department, said that although the Sunnis in Iraq did not take part in the elections, this does not mean they have no desire to take part in Iraq’s political life. For his part, Shaykh Hathal Younis Yahya, a representative from the northern Ninavah province said: “We made a big mistake when we did not vote. Our votes were very important.” He also blamed threats from some resistance fighters, rather than sectarian differences, for keeping most Sunnis from going to the polls.

As well as forming a government, the newly elected national assembly will be charged with the task of writing a permanent constitution. This promises to be the most awkward challenge facing the new ruling coalition in Iraq. The role of Islam in the state will be the main source of controversy. The visions for Iraq’s future adopted by the Kurds and the Shi’as could not be further apart: the Kurds are secular and pro-American; the Shi’as want the constitution to state that Islam will be the main source of law in the country.

Yet the major Shi’a groups and senior ulama in Iraq are insisting that they do not want to set up a system of government based on the principle of wilayat al-faqih, as has been done inIran. In fact, the prevalent trend in the seminaries of Najaf is to reject the late Imam Khomeini’s articulation of the principle of wilayat al-faqih. In short (and at the risk of falling into over-simplification), whereas Imam Khomeini’s doctrine of wilayat al-faqih vests the rights both to lead the state and to exercise juristic functions in the wali al-faqih, the prevalent view in Najaf is that the right to govern is separate from the juristic function, and should be kept separate. According to the latter view, the jurists’ intervention and activities in the political arena are required only by the desirability of order over chaos and the general welfare of the community. This is the general background of the position adopted by Ayatullah Sistani in post-SaddamIraq.

In such an atmosphere, the process of drafting a constitutional document acceptable to Iraq’s main constituent groups will inevitably be slow and involve a series of compromises to resolve divisive issues. Yet some differences might prove to be so profound that they will enable the US to intervene and push for forced compromises. That kind of American meddling, which has characterized many of the compromises reached so far at crucial junctures, such as in the formation of the Iraqi Governing Council and the drafting of the State Administration Law, will ensure that the new Iraqi government will be weak and less responsive to citizens who are in certain areas or from some groups.

Eventually the protracted controversy could well become another factor that contributes to a growing multitude of divisive issues that are tearing Iraq apart.

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