The Shi’i political scene is getting nowhere with proposals for the post-occupation phase. The Shi’a jumped enthusiastically into the political process after they received confirmation that they would have a prominent role in the Iraqi Governing Council. The council brought a divisive formula to Iraqi society along sectarian and ethnic rather than political and ideological bases, giving thirteen cabinet seats to the Shi’a, five each to the Sunnis and Kurds, one to the Turkmen, and one to the Chaldeans and Assyrians. The so-called representatives of the Shi’a and other groups are in fact nothing but political parties that cannot truly claim to represent them, as no single religious or political figure can do so. Shi’a and Sunnis cover the entire political and ideological spectrum: religious and non-religious, political and apolitical, believers and non-believers, Islamists and non-Islamists—as well as Communists, Baathists, nationalists, and independents.
During 2003 and 2004, sectarian groups gained an advantage in the political formula proposed by former U.S. Civil Administrator Paul Bremer (acting under an international umbrella)—including a divisive electoral law, the Transitional Administrative Law, and later a permanent constitution along the same lines—thereby imposing polarization and predetermining results. As a result, new political players appeared and others disappeared. As Shi’i groups jockeyed for position, the Islamic Action Organization (part of the Supreme Islamic Council) vanished and in its stead came Muqtada al-Sadr’s party and the Fadila party.
The various Shi’i groups have differences that are more political than ideological. Muqtada al-Sadr’s party and Fadila share the same ideological roots as the Dawa Party and the Supreme Islamic Council. Al-Sadr’s organization differs from the Supreme Islamic Council, however, in its rejectionist stance toward the occupation and its hard-line stances on social issues, modernity, and women’s rights. As for the Fadila Party, its struggles with the government headed by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki stem from efforts to improve its bargaining positions with the other players. The principal current conflict among Fadila, al-Sadr’s party, and the Supreme Islamic Council is over influence, particularly in oil-rich Basra. Meanwhile, the relationship between the Dawa Party and the Supreme Islamic Council is one of enemy brothers. Despite the two groups’ alliance in government, they are competing for Washington’s goodwill on the one hand and Tehran’s on the other—while also vying for support in the Shi’i street.
The individual citizen is a major variable that has yet to emerge in Shi’i politics. Such citizens felt compelled to vote for the Shi’i coalition in 2005 elections, in a moment of false consciousness and under the pressure of bitterness toward the legacy of thirty-five years of despotic rule. The average citizen has become extremely disillusioned with new rulers who have failed to make any notable achievements in the past five years, whether in the economy, society, or public services. Moreover, the political situation is deteriorating and identity-based killing, terrorism, and militia fighting are ongoing. Security is nonexistent, corruption rampant, electricity and gasoline scarce, and unemployment widespread—all of which have disenchanted Shi’i and non-Shi’i voters.
Regarding reconciliation with Sunni groups, Supreme Islamic Council leader Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim and other Shi’i leaders (including Prime Minister Maliki himself) fear that the incorporation of the Sunni Awakening (Sahwa) groups into the Iraqi army will turn the army into an amalgam of militias with dual, perhaps contradictory, loyalties. Al-Maliki fears that because the Awakening militias were formed and fully funded by U.S. forces, their loyalty to the government and the army will be weak. Although the Awakening militias now claim that their mission is to defeat al-Qaeda’s terrorist organization, there is concern that the 70,000 Sunni militia members will eventually turn to confront Shi’i militias loyal to the government or Muqtada al-Sadr.
After some five years, the current political process has run its course and Shi’i political forces have proven that they have no statesman who is up to the challenge and who can enforce a separation between mosque and state. One cannot speak of civil society in the context of religious militia intervention and the subjugation of the state to the logic of religion, sect, and tribe. The political process will hold no promise unless the army is rebuilt on a non-sectarian and non-ethnic basis, the militias are dissolved, and the state’s standing is restored. A decisive and competent compromise government rooted in standards of honesty and integrity and under UN supervision must establish security and protect citizens’ lives and property. And that can happen only after setting a timetable for withdrawal of the occupying forces from Iraq and holding new, internationally supervised elections during a transitional period.
Abd al-Hussein Sha’ban is an Iraqi writer and intellectual. Paul Wulfsberg translated this article from Arabic.