Iraq’s Sadr and communist sickle join forces for election

Iraq's powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr addresses the media. (AFP)
Updated 11 March 2018
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Iraq’s Sadr and communist sickle join forces for election

BAGHDAD: Supporters of a black-turbaned Shiite cleric are seeing red in the runup to Iraq’s May elections thanks to an unprecedented alliance with the once-powerful communist party.
Populist preacher Moqtada Sadr has defied his clerical rivals and opted to campaign for the May 12 poll alongside former enemies, Marxists who demand a secular state.
“This alliance is a first in Iraq,” said Ibrahim Al-Jaberi, a Sadrist official.
“It’s a revolution by Iraqis who want reforms — both secularists, like the communists, and by moderate Islamists.”
Jaberi, a 34-year-old cleric who sports a red beard along with his black turban and gown, heads every Friday to central Baghdad’s Tahrir Square to address hundreds of anti-government protesters.
“This alliance is no surprise because for more than two years we’ve been fighting together in every province against sectarianism,” he said.
Civil society activists launched the protest movement in July 2015, demanding reforms, better public services and an end to corruption.
They were later joined by followers of Sadr, the populist scion of a dynasty of religious elders.
“The demands weren’t at all sectarian — they were for the rule of law and for a civil state for the citizen,” said Raed Fahmi, secretary of the Iraqi Communist Party and an ex-science and technology minister.
“The important thing is that it allowed people from the Islamist movement and secularists to work together,” he said.
Communists dominated Iraqi politics in the 1950s, but were crushed and marginalized under dictator Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party. Today, the party has just one member of parliament.
Shiite religious parties have come to play a greater role in the years since the US-led 2003 invasion of Iraq that toppled Saddam.
Fahmi said the protest movement had given rise to cooperation “between people who, in principle, have nothing in common ideologically.”
“That then evolved into a political alliance,” he said.
His office was adorned with a red flag bearing the hammer and sickle alongside the Iraqi flag with the inscription: “God is Greatest.”
The alliance, dubbed “Marching toward Reform,” is made up of six mostly non-Islamist groups, including the communists, and a Sadr-backed technocratic party called Istiqama (“Integrity“).
Sadr has withdrawn his Ahrar bloc from parliament and urged its 33 MPs not to stand in the May poll, in order to make way for the joint list.
On Tahrir Square, women in black chador smiled but didn’t talk to their unveiled counterparts.
Nadia Nasser, a 43-year-old teacher in chador, said their goal was “to change the horrible leaders that have governed us for 14 years.”
“I’m sick of corruption. I’m in favor of this alliance because I want to see new faces,” she said.
Qassem Mozan, a 42-year-old day laborer, said the alliance was natural.
“The Sadrist movement is open to all parties and confessions,” he said “For me, we’re one people with a single flag.”
Yet 44-year-old populist Moqtada Sadr was not so ecumenical during the years following the 2003 invasion.
His militia, the Mahdi Army, was accused of setting up death squads targeting Sunni Muslims. Sadr himself was accused of ordering the 2003 murder of rival Abdelmajid Al-Khoei.
Sadrist militiamen also attacked bars and beat homosexuals until he ordered them to stop in 2016.
Jassem Al-Hilfi, a smiling, greying 58-year-old communist who helps organize the protests, said he remembered his first meeting with Sadr, in 2015 in the Shiite holy city of Najaf.
“We presented him with our plans to fight corruption and create a civilian state through the ballot box. He listened to us and said he was willing and ready to cooperate,” he said.
Hilfi and Sadr have met every two weeks since.
Jaberi said some say “it’s impossible” for secularists and the religious to work together.
But “it’s not an ideological alliance,” he said. “Everyone has their convictions.”
That hasn’t shielded the coalition from heavy criticism by other powerful Shiite religious parties.
“They launched a war against our list and attack us on their TV channels,” Jaberi said, smiling. “That shows how weak the corrupt are and how strong we are.”


Russia, Iran, Turkey seeking deal on new Syria constitution body

Updated 24 min 30 sec ago
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Russia, Iran, Turkey seeking deal on new Syria constitution body

  • Foreign ministers near agreement on the composition of a Syrian constitutional committee
  • UN Special Envoy has tried since January to clinch agreement on the identity of 150 members

GENEVA: Russia, Iran and Turkey are nearing agreement on the composition of a Syria committee that could pave the way for the drafting of a new constitution and for elections after a devastating civil war, diplomats said on Tuesday.
The foreign ministers of the three nations, who support opposing sides in Syria’s nearly eight-year-old conflict, began talks in Geneva to seal their joint proposal and seek the United Nations’ blessing for it, they added.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, asked on arrival whether he expected to reach an agreement with counterparts Sergei Lavrov of Russia and Mevlut Cavusoglu of Turkey, told reporters: “I hope so.”
Staffan de Mistura, UN Special Envoy for Syria who steps down on Dec. 31, has tried since January to clinch agreement on the identity of 150 members of a new constitutional committee to revitalize a stalled peace process.
President Bashar Assad’s government and the opposition fighting to topple him have each submitted a list of 50 names. But Russia, Iran and Turkey have haggled over the final 50 members from civil society and “independent” backgrounds, diplomats say.
“The three countries are coming with a proposal for the third list, which has been the heart of the problem,” one diplomat following the negotiations closely told Reuters.
Turkey and other nations would consider working with Assad if he won a democratic election, Cavusoglu said on Sunday.
Turkey supports rebels who control part of northwest Syria. A year ago, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan described Assad as a terrorist and said it was impossible for Syrian peacemaking efforts to continue with him.
Assad, whose forces have reclaimed most of Syria with Russian and Iranian support apart from Idlib, a northwestern province, has clung to power throughout the conflict and is widely seen as being loath to yield power after it ends.
The Damascus government has previously brushed off UN-led efforts to set up a constitutional committee.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Moualem, in comments reported by state media on Monday, said it was “early to talk about” the constitutional committee starting work. He blamed attempts at “interference” by Western states for the hold-up in its formation, in addituon to “obstacles” laid by Turkey.
Syrian authorities have only ever signalled a readiness for “amendments” to the existing constitution and also said these must be put to a referendum.
De Mistura said at the weekend that the constitutional committee could be a starting point for political progress.
“It does touch, for instance, on presidential powers, it could and should be touching on how elections are done, on division of power, in other words a big issue,” he said.