Iraqis embrace pragmatism to depart from sectarian politics

Iraqis embrace pragmatism to depart from sectarian politics

In many ways, this week's Iraqi legislative elections were extraordinary; signaling a slow but determined departure from the ethno-sectarian schisms that had fractured Iraqi society since the US invasion of 2003. Almost all competing lists sought to bridge the sectarian divide, reflecting a growing sense of pragmatism that has come as a result of years of exceptional hardship and tests, the last of which was the bitter and devastating war against Daesh. 

Regardless of the outcome of the vote — where less than half of registered voters actually turned out — the real challenge for the heads of the major lists, including the incumbent Prime Minister Haider Abadi's Victory List (Al-Nasr), will be to build alliances and coalitions that will allow Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds and other minorities to share power for the first time. 

There were some surprise results: Iraqi nationalist and Shiite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr's Revolutionaries for Reform Alliance (Al-Sairoon) came out first in Baghdad, which has the highest number of seats. A bitter opponent of US and Iranian hegemony over Iraqi politics, Al-Sadr’s list includes Islamists and secularists alike. His will be a deciding voice in selecting the next prime minister and cabinet. 

Although Abadi's list was expected to overcome the competition, by Monday he was trailing in third place. In another surprise, the Iran-backed Hadi Al-Ameri and his Conquest Alliance (Al-Fatah) was in second place, claiming votes in most Shiite provinces. 

Despite the low turnout, technical problems that affected automated polling machines, and the failure of thousands of displaced Iraqis to cast their ballots amid accusations of vote rigging in Kurdistan, there is a sense that Iraq is finally emerging from decades of disunity, sectarian friction and foreign interference. But recovery will be slow and not without setbacks. A government that bridges ethno-sectarian gaps would go a long way toward bringing Iraqis together and limiting foreign intervention in the country’s affairs. 

But, until that happens — it will take some time for the heads of lists to embrace a common platform — three main powers will be calculating their moves. 

It remains to be seen how the US, which retains considerable influence over Iraq, will play its next move. It has backed Abadi in the past against Iran's choice, Nouri Al-Maliki, under whose watch Daesh was able to conquer 40 percent of the country, and who is seen as being responsible for widespread corruption. 

The supreme Shiite institution in Najaf will also play its part in managing the political negotiations that will follow the elections. Abadi remains a favorite and he has attempted to woo disenchanted Sunni voters in Anbar, Nineveh and Salahuddin provinces.

But rising tensions between the US and Iran are likely to cast a heavy shadow over Iraq's political recovery. The war against Daesh has produced a new and influential political player: The Popular Mobilization Units (PMU). Its leader Al-Ameri and his Conquest Alliance now represent Iranian interests in Iraq. 

With the Daesh threat now largely contained, the next Iraqi government will face the gigantic challenge of reconstruction.

Osama Al Sharif

That leaves Iraqi Kurds, who have splintered and are now trading accusations amid allegations of vote rigging. Since the botched referendum of last year, the Kurds have bowed down to Baghdad's diktats. The elections will decide what share they will have in parliament and, accordingly, in the next government. The future of the oil-rich Kirkuk province remains a challenge.

With the Daesh threat now largely contained, the next Iraqi government will face the gigantic challenge of reconstruction. Mosul, which used to be Iraq's second largest city, will have to be rebuilt almost completely. Millions of displaced Iraqis, mostly Sunnis, are waiting to return to their homes, but that won't happen until the central government can raise enough funds to kick-start the process of reconstruction. Iraq cannot do it alone so it needs the help of regional states and the international community to begin work. That task will take years and maybe decades to complete.

Iraq's stability is of paramount importance to the Gulf states and the region beyond. Maintaining national reconciliation and fighting institutional corruption is a job that is beyond one single government. More importantly, Iraqis need to regain confidence in the state and its institutions and that will not be easy.

The US-Iran spat must not be used to interfere in Iraqi internal affairs, but that is bound to happen if the two countries are engaged in confrontations rather than negotiations. The latter seems unlikely now. This is why Iraqi leaders such as Abadi, Al-Sadr and Ammar Al-Hakim must avoid being sucked into the vortex of regional crises and polarizations. They must move away from identity politics, as promised during the campaign, toward a more inclusive national base. Their alliance with moderate Sunni powers is the best insurance against foreign meddling.

One bright point accompanying Saturday's elections was that there were no terrorist attacks against polling stations or voters. For a country that, only a year ago, was on the point of submission to terror groups, that is a major accomplishment.

  • Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010
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