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IRAQ: Secular Candidates Have Their Best Chance

Mohammed A. Salih

WASHINGTON, Mar 6 2010 (IPS) - As Iraqis go to the polls on Sunday, a key question in the minds of many in Iraq and Washington is whether secular candidates can continue their recent rise and possibly come out as winners.

For the first time after the war, the seculars can now make a strong showing in the country’s parliamentary elections and emerge as a major force. That is in stark contrast to the last two parliamentary elections, when sectarian and religious groups dominated the scene.

Such a change would be a welcome development in Washington, which hopes a strong secular nationalist identity takes shape in Iraq as a bulwark against what it sees as Iran’s influence and interference in Iraqi affairs.

“I think there has been a trend since the provincial elections last year reflecting a spike in nationalist feelings and a spike in opposition to religious and sectarian parties,” Raed Jarrar, an Iraq analyst, told IPS.

Jarrar is a native Iraqi and a senior scholar with Peace Action, a non-for-profit group that works to promote peace around the world.

During Iraq’s provincial elections last year, parties with secular attitudes, or at least the ones that did not conjure religion as their dominant theme, managed to garner large numbers of votes.

The current shift in the political landscape of Iraq’s Arab areas is a far cry from the past two parliamentary elections. In the northern Kurdistan region, the political parties are mostly secular. During the last two national elections, the major political coalitions among Iraqi Shias and Sunnis were mostly religious and sectarian in make-up and outlook.

The country’s largest secular coalition is al-Iraqiya, headed by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a Shia Arab. Allawi’s coalition has crossed sectarian lines and includes prominent Sunni politicians such as Vice-President Tariq al-Hashemi.

Al-Iraqiya is known for its strong stances against Iran’s influence in Iraqi politics and its opposition to sectarianism. The al-Iraqiya coalition is now one of the three major contenders in the elections. The other two major coalitions are the State of Law led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Iraqi National Alliance (INA) dominated by the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and Muqtada Sadr’s group.

This time, al-Iraqiya not only has a good chance to be a major component in any future government and parliament, but stands a better chance than ever to surprise all and possibly come out as the main winner.

“Iraqiya has played successfully on the theme that it represents the direction that the Iraqi people want their country to take: secularism over sectarianism, technocracy over patronage, integrity over corruption, and nationalism over sectarianism,” wrote Kenneth M. Pollack, a Middle East expert, in an analysis this week.

Pollack is the director of the Saban Centre for Middle East Policy at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.

“If Iraqis go to the polls feeling particularly angry about the fecklessness of their political leadership, Iraqiya will no doubt come out ahead,” he noted.

Since the establishment of the modern Iraqi state in the 1920s up until 2003, Iraq was always dominated and run by secular parties. But the U.S.-led invasion of 2003 put an end to that. The current resurgence of secularism has heartened secular politicians who hope it will be a growing trend.

“I think Iraq is returning to its traditional secularism. And I think the values of democracy are getting gradually entrenched in Iraqi society, and that makes us really encouraged,” Adnan Pachachi, a former foreign minister and a Sunni Arab member of the al-Iraqiya coalition, told Al-Jazeera earlier this week.

However, secular politicians face major obstacles in the country. Their current popularity is a phenomenon mainly confined to the Sunni heartland of central and western Iraq, as well as the capital Baghdad. It seems to be fueled by Sunnis’ weariness with the sectarian atmosphere that has marginalised them in the country.

But in the Shia south, seculars face an uphill battle against powerful religious parties that have better resources and a stronger organisational structure. Decades of war and sanctions have played their role in eroding the secular base as well.

“Secular parties depend on a robust urban middle class, but the economic decline, especially in Baghdad and Basra, is what has hurt lists like Allawi’s,” Juan Cole, a well-known Iraq and Middle East expert, told IPS.

Cole believes secular parties do not have “very much chance winning these elections.” But he says if seculars like Allawi happened to win, the U.S. would hope he could be a barrier to Iran’s influence.

Iraq has been a central battlefield in the hostilities between the U.S. and Iran for the last seven years. Despite the military occupation of Iraq by the U.S., Iran has reportedly played an influential role in shaping Iraq’s politics.

Many in Iraq and outside are concerned that the country may fall under a stronger Iranian influence once the U.S. troops are out of Iraq. While the U.S. accuses Iran of “malevolent” involvement in Iraq, Iran charges that the U.S. occupation has been the cause of the current instability in Iraq.

Even if al-Iraqiya wins, it will have a hard time forming a government. It is not clear whether other major coalitions like State of Law and the INA would be willing to join Allawi. Both these groups have had a tense relationship with Allawi and some elements inside al-Iraqiya.

The fact that Ahmed Chalabi is a member of INA and was behind the ban on some key al-Iraqiya candidates might make it hard for INA and al-Iraqiya to enter a partnership. Due to the presence of some strong nationalist Arabs within al-Iraqiya who are not on good terms with Kurds, it is also not clear whether al-Iraqiya and the Kurdish groups can enter into any joint coalition.

However, Kurds are on good terms with Allawi himself and view him favourably.

While it appears a tough game for al-Iraqiya, it is not impossible for the group to form the government if it wins. Despite the occasional zero-sum nature of Iraqi politics, the country’s factions have been able at times to make deals that once seemed impossible.

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