Religious Parties Running Iraq’s Government? - 04.09.2006

It’s taken a little while, but I’m getting back to analyzing my friend Ali’s 5 point plan for withdrawal.

Previously I discussed the need for removing sectarianism and ethnic division from Iraq’s security forces, a paramount need if Iraq is to pull together as a united country.

Part 2 of Ali Al’Kaissi’s plan involves the impact of religious parties in the government.

2. Stopping the religious parties from being inside the government.

Currently, the United Iraqi Alliance is the major power broker in Iraq’s nascent government. They possess ____ seats and thus are the majority party in the government. However, they do not have enough seats by themselves to elect a prime minister and move Iraq’s new parliament forward.

In the current government there are religious figures sitting in parliament seats alongside secular ministers. Prominent figures in Iraq’s religious community began to exert influence early in the occupation. Juan Cole was writing about the impact of religious parties in Iraq as early as late April 2003. In this article from Middle East Report Online Juan says:

Religious Shiite parties and militias in Iraq have recently stepped into the gap resulting from the collapse of the Baath Party, especially in the sacred shrine cities. This development must have come as a shock to Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, who in early March preferred Iraqis as US allies to Saudis, saying that they are secular and “overwhelmingly Shia, which is different from the Wahhabis of the peninsula, and they don’t bring the sensitivity of having the holy cities of Islam being on their territory.” Wolfowitz and other pro-war policymakers were right that large numbers of Shiites, from the educated middle class to factory workers, are secular Iraqi nationalists. But they were dead wrong to discount the power of the religious forces, and seem ignorant of the centrality of the shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala.

Despite the large presence of secularism inside Iraq, on both sides of the Shi’i/Sunni split, politicians backed by religious mandates are increasingly filling positions of power in the new Iraq. Many of these politicians, in particular the high-ups from SCIRI and Badr, are seen to have direct ties to Iran.

Furthermore, as Reidar Visser writes on his website,, which focuses mainly on in-depth analysis of Shi’a movements in Iraq:

It is often claimed that the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is the most important person in Iraqi politics today. But there is less agreement on exactly what kind of political ideology the ayatollah stands for. Two dominant paradigms for understanding Sistani are explored in this paper: is he a “quietist” or is he a Machiavellian prince? The discussion also covers Sistani’s stand on contentious issues like sectarianism, federalism, the implementation of the Sharia Islamic law in an Islamic state, and the Khomeini-inspired principle of wilayat al-faqih (“the rule of the jurisprudent”).

This question of religious parties influencing Iraqi politics is of course directly tied to the previous point in Ali’s withdrawal plan. There are sectarian security forces primarily as defenders of these religion-oriented political entities.

Again from Juan Cole’s article in Middle East Report:

The US warned Iran not to allow Badr Brigade forces into Iraq during the US invasion. Al-Hakim maintains that they slipped into the country even so. As of April 17, Badr Brigade gunmen controlled the town of Baquba (pop. 163,000) near the Iranian border, and a Badr Brigade force allowed SCIRI cleric Sayyid Abbas to occupy the mayor’s mansion in Kut (pop. 360,000).

and also:

According to the Daily Telegraph’s correspondent, “Mr. Abbas voiced what are quickly becoming the standard demands: an Islamic, Shia-dominated state for Iraq, and an end to American occupation.”

Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, deputy head of SCIRI, returned to Iraq on April 16, arriving at Kut to cheers, presumably preparing the way for his older brother to do the same. In a press interview, the younger al-Hakim pledged that SCIRI would work together with other parties in the new Iraq. In Kut on April 18, he gave an interview with Iranian television in which he said, “we will first opt for a national political system, but eventually the Iraqi people will seek an Islamic republic system.” He added that the will of Shiites for an Islamic system would prevail in democratic elections, since they are 60 percent of the population.

One of the major issues regarding Hakim’s assertion about the elections stems from a fundamental misunderstanding in the press regarding Iraqi politics. Sixty percent of Iraq’s citizenry may well stem from Shi’ite religious and familial backgrounds, but just like there are plenty of Catholics in the United States whose actions rarely reflect the edicts of the Pope, Iraqi Shi’as also exist widely in a secular vein.

The ignorance of the foreign press with regard to the nuances of Iraqi life, both politically and in terms of religion, paved the way for Shi’a dominance in Iraq. These leaders, without an alternate narrative, constructed Iraqi political identity directly in conjunction with religious sect.

According to Iraqi Parliamentarian Maysoon Al’Damluji, who was interviewed by the Austin American-Statesman:

Damluji, 44, faces a tide of religious fundamentalism and tribalism surging throughout Iraq. She said it goes hand-in-hand with the lawlessness since the fall of the Saddam three years ago.

“It will fade with law and order,” she said. “Unfortunately when any country gets to the situation we are in now, the government has no authority and laws are extremely weak, it is the extremists who take over the public domain.”

Damluji claims the foreign press fails to recognize Iraq’s liberal and secular mainstream.

The influence of Iran, particularly through its clerical infrastructure and Ayatollah Khomeini is believed by many Iraqis to be very strong, and rather than dedicated to a sovereign Iraqi identity, is intent on exporting Iran’s Islamic Revolution and exerting its hegemonic influence over Iraq.

Because of all these issues, many Iraqis see the role of religious parties as to dangerous to Iraq’s sovereignty and national unity. The removal of these parties from the government would be as simple, and as difficult, as re-authoring the Iraqi constitution. Furthermore, words from Ayatollah Ali Sistani, forbidding the presence of clerics in the political establishment would make strong steps towards ending the overt influence of the religious establishment.

Without putting forward an Iraqi government where Iraqis make decisions on the nations’ direction, based on an Iraqi character and democratic decisions, it seems unlikely that any withdrawal could secure a democratic peaceful Iraq.

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