Balancing Religious and Tribal Divides in Iraqi Election

The U.S. is making some policy changes to try to ensure the participation of Sunnis and moderate Shiites in this week’s elections for a permanent Iraqi government. Almost all observers agree that the election of a hard-core Shiite government without substantial participation and autonomy for the Kurd and Sunni regions is a recipe for disaster.

In policy flip, U.S. reaching out to Baathists (Knight Ridder)

In a reversal of policy, U.S. officials in Iraq are encouraging some former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party to run in Thursday’s election, saying it’s one way to bring marginalized Sunni Muslims into the new government. ”I think those (Baathists) who do not have blood on their hands, and were not very serious in the government structure, should be integrated into the political process,” said Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, in an interview with Knight Ridder on Sunday. “Ultimately, all wars must come to an end.”

Until now, the United States has led calls for purging Baathists from the government. L. Paul Bremer, the former administrator of Iraq’s government until the hand-over of power in June 2004, created a de-Baathification committee in 2003. The committee pushed upper level Baathists, who were mostly minority Sunni Muslims, out of their jobs. It is widely acknowledged that thrusting a large segment of the population into unemployment fueled the mostly Sunni insurgency. Khalilzad said that some members of the committee had abused their authority. ”The laws have to be followed, but they have to be followed fairly,” he said.


More than a quarter of Iraqis were members of Hussein’s Baath Party, which largely ruled Iraq during his 24-year regime. Bureaucrats, soldiers and appointees often had to join the party to get good jobs. Sunni officials have said that not every Baathist was a criminal and that the new Shiite-dominated government excludes Sunnis from the political process on the basis of their sect.

Presuming that they take the “who do not have blood on their hands” part of this seriously, this is long overdue. Overly aggressive de-Baathification and having too few troops for post-Saddam security and stabilization operations are the two biggest policy blunders of this war. Fixing this makes sense.

Still, getting Sunni buy-in is not the whole answer. There is serious concern as well about the Shiite factions.

Secular Shiites May Hold Balance In Iraq Election (LAT, p. 1)

A mild-mannered middle school teacher, Raad Khafaji is a hot property as Iraq counts down to its parliamentary election. Khafaji is a secular Shiite Muslim who drinks alcohol and is married to a Sunni Muslim engineer. That might make him a natural supporter of the like-minded slate led by former interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, perceived as Washington’s favored candidate. But Khafaji said he may yet vote for the United Iraqi Alliance, a large coalition of Shiite religious parties with strong ties to neighbor Iran. Torn between Allawi, a secular Shiite who represents his ideology and lifestyle, and the Alliance, which represents his sect, Khafaji is the kind of undecided voter who could tip the balance in Thursday’s election, political insiders and experts say.

“There’s a real struggle between hearts and minds in these voters,” said the director of an Iraqi polling institute, who asked that his name and that of his firm not be published for security reasons. Most Iraqi voters are believed to have made up their minds on the election long ago, their choice often determined by ethnic or sectarian allegiance. But, according to the polling institute, in a survey in November about 18% of Iraqi voters identified themselves as undecided.

In an election that has broad implications for the United States and the Middle East, the secular and religious camps have fine-tuned their campaigns to appeal to those swing voters — Allawi by taking off his tie and trying to appear less Western, the devout Shiites by trying to appear less religious. “We say to this group, ‘We do not want an Islamic government, we want a democratic government,” said Ridha Taqi, a strategist and candidate for the United Iraqi Alliance, which won a commanding 48% of the popular vote in the last election, in January, and a narrow majority of assembly seats. “We talk about freedom. We tell them we will not bother anyone nor take away their freedoms,” he said.

Unfortunately, the influence of the clerics is strong, with those who want a more secularist government torn by fealty to their faith and their tribes.

Village Sheiks Look To Clerics On Vote (WaPo, A18)

The village sheik sat by a fire pit in the village meeting house. Tea kettles, with spouts like the beaks of birds, were cold. He ticked off his grievances with the Iraqi government: Electricity comes only a few hours each day, not enough to power the pumps needed to flood the rice fields. The water in the irrigation canal is too low. Food rations, a mainstay under Saddam Hussein, came only four months in the last 12, and not much was in them.

Above him, on the reed arches and woven ceiling, smoke from a thousand fires had left its mark. Each night, the village men sit on carpets around the fire and discuss their problems. The harvest was bad. People are poor. But on the question of whether they would vote to change the government, the sheik said no. “No, of course not,” said Jamil Jabbar Fatlawi, 53, a thin man whose skin the sun and wind have turned leathery. “Our religious leaders say we should vote this way. If we don’t follow, we are not Muslim.”

Fatlawi’s declaration, echoed time and again in the countryside of southern Iraq, is evidence that national elections Thursday appear destined to produce a four-year government in which religious Shiites continue to have the most powerful voice, an outcome far from the original aim of the U.S. invasion.

Dissatisfaction with the current Shiite-led government is heard in conversations around diwaniya fires and when villagers rest while sifting rice from the harvest. But a veiled signal by the Shiites’ highest religious authorities, based 15 miles south of here in Najaf, has solidified support for the main slate of Shiite candidates, the United Iraqi Alliance, which has the largest bloc in the current legislature. “There’s been a dramatic change,” said Ahmed Fatlawi, an official of a human rights organization in Najaf monitoring the campaign. “Two months ago, there was a lot of talk about replacing the current government. Now that is gone.”

That shift is bad news for secular candidates, such as former interim prime minister Ayad Allawi. An undertow of grumbling that the government elected in January has done little to improve life for Iraqis had fueled speculation of an upset in the elections. Unhappy voters, the theory went, would reject the religious-based candidates in favor of those like Allawi, who campaigns on promises of tough government and national unity.

But if the Shiites rally to support the incumbents’ slate, their numbers will ensure that the Shiites remain the biggest bloc in the parliament. That in turn would mean another division of the government pie among Sunni Arabs, Shiites and Kurds, with the prime minister’s post likely going to the Shiites.

Allawi, who admittedly has a stake in the outcome, goes even further, predicting blood in the streets if something like the current government wins this election.

Allawi Predicts A ‘Bloody Chain Of Evil’ (London Daily Telegraph, p.1)

Iraq is likely to descend into civil war, unleashing a wave of “evil forces” around the world, if the current government is returned to power in this week’s elections, the former prime minister warned yesterday. Iyad Allawi, a one-time exile who spent many years in London, issued his stark forecast days after being assaulted during a visit to one of Iraq’s holiest shrines, where he believes he was lucky to escape with his life.

Dr Allawi is heading a secular list for the elections on Thursday to choose the country’s first full government since Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003. Previous post-Saddam governments – including his own – have been temporary affairs, but this one will shape the future of Iraq for the next four years. A legitimate authority will allow America and Britain to start reducing their troop numbers.

Dr Allawi believes this is the last chance to prevent Iraq collapsing into fiefdoms run by sectarian militias. There are strong signs that this is already happening, with the police being infiltrated by militias linked to parties in the ruling Shia Muslim coalition. “If Iraq continues down this route, Iraq will dismember and fragment,” Dr Allawi said at his guarded home in Baghdad. “When it fragments, God forbid, it will be quite bloody. Not only for Iraq. It will trigger a chain in the whole region, and perhaps beyond, which cannot be controlled, and this will unleash evil forces throughout the world.”

Charlie Moskos, the dean of military sociology, believes oil is the key to many of these problems.

Give The Sunnis Role In Making New Iraq Work (Chicago Tribune, Dec. 11)

First, the obvious. Iraq’s Sunni heartland is the crucible of the insurgency. The upcoming Dec. 15 legislative elections may or may not see more Sunni involvement in the Iraq government. But it’s virtually certain that there will be no diminishment in an insurgency increasingly killing civilian Iraqis as well as American, coalition and Iraqi security forces. The revelation of Sunnis being tortured in a secret underground prison run by Shiites adds yet another ingredient to the Sunni fears of a Shiite-dominated Iraq.

The not so obvious is why the Sunnis voted overwhelmingly against Iraq’s new constitution on Oct. 15. Their opposition was phrased in terms that it would turn a heretofore centralized country into a loose federation. This strikes one as strange as it would be the Sunnis whose situation would be most helped in a federal system. Certainly a federal system would be better for the Sunni minority than a unitary state dominated by the majority Shiite (the opposite of the previous unitary state dominated by Sunnis).

Why would Sunnis object to such a federal system? The bottom line is oil revenues. The geographical areas dominated by Shiites and Kurds are where the oil is found. And it was the Sunnis under Saddam Hussein who benefited most from the oil revenues garnered from the Shiite and Kurdish areas. Surprisingly, the distribution of oil revenues has gotten little attention in all the Iraq coverage. The new constitution states oil revenues must be shared among Iraq’s provinces in proportion to their population. This would mean the revenues would be approximately distributed 20 percent for the Sunnis, 20 percent for the Kurds and 60 percent for the Shiites. But for a certain time period, the new constitution also states, an extra amount will be given to regions that “were deprived in an unfair way by the former regime.” In other words, the Sunni region will be getting less than its population proportion. How much less is unclear


Still, even with adjustments along the lines proposed here, the Sunnis will receive a much smaller percentage of the oil revenues than under Saddam Hussein. This means international and United States aid must be primarily focused on the Sunni region. A Marshall Plan analogue would be appropriate. Non-governmental organizations, Western and Islamic, should be encouraged to play a significant role in the rehabilitation of an insurgency-free Iraq.

Of course, there is no silver bullet for Iraq’s woes. Internal problems independent of oil revenues are serious, e.g. Muqtada al-Sadr’s militia in south Iraq, Turkish apprehensions over a de facto Kurdistan, Iranian influence on Iraqi Shiites, and much more. Still getting the Sunnis really on board the incoming government is the only way to undermine the insurgency. In this way, the newly formed Sunni security forces will be much less cross-pressured in their willingness to fight fellow Sunnis in the insurgency as well as foreign jihadists. Readjusting oil revenues is a necessary step for the United States to truly have a “mission accomplished.”

Some key leaders in Iraq apparently agree.

Key Iraqi Sees Loose Alliance As Future (USA Today, p. 1)

A future Iraq should consist of semi-autonomous regions that share the country’s oil wealth, the top contender to become the next prime minister said ahead of Thursday’s parliamentary elections. Adel Abdul Mahdi, 63, Iraq’s vice president and a member of the ruling Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), described a post-election Iraq with a less powerful central government. U.S. and other Iraqi officials favor tight control in Baghdad to maintain national unity.

Leaders of the three main ethnic groups — Sunni Arabs, Kurds and the majority Shiite Arabs — are struggling to end sectarian violence and unite Iraq. Mahdi’s mainly Shiite SCIRI, which dominates the 275-seat Transitional National Assembly, previously proposed autonomy for Shiite areas.

Mahdi said he envisions a national army, but each federal region would be responsible for internal security. Mahdi also wants regions to have more control over funding. Southern Iraq “is deprived of money, deprived of power, deprived of everything,†he said in a weekend interview with USA TODAY.

Mahdi also said that setting a timetable for withdrawing U.S. forces was not a good idea. He warned that pulling troops out prematurely could cause security to deteriorate further. Concerned about unrest during the election, the Iraqi government said Sunday that it will close all borders and extend curfew hours from Tuesday until Saturday.

Presuming predictions of a high Sunni turnout come true, there should be a reasonable presumption of legitimacy for the elected government. Still, there’s a lot of work to be done to ensure that Kurds, Sunnis, and secular Shia feel represented.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. John Burgess says:

    Something missing from these analyses is the fact that the Shi’a in Iraq come in at least two different flavors. This is important because the Shi’a who follow Al-Sistani are, predominantly, of the Akhbari school.

    This school believes that when the 12th Imam went into occlusion–i.e., disappeared–the bond between religious and secular government was broken and will remain broken until he returns. Thus, there is no legitimate religious rule that coincides with secular rule. Religiously, you do the best you can in your life; your outcome will be decided on Judgment Day. In the meantime, you follow secular law and work within the secular system to change it. This form of Shi’ism is found primarily among Arabs, on the western side of the Gulf, including Iraq.

    The major alternative is ‘Usuli Shi’ism. This is the form found in Iran and Lebanon, but is also the form practiced by the Al-Sadr group.

    This form says that while the 12th Imam did vanish, he left his religious/secular authority in the hands of the religious leadership. Thus, the religious hierarchy (an aspect of Islam not known to the Sunnis or to the Akhbari) chooses a leader who is authorized to promulgate both religious law and secular law, i.e., government.

    Akhbaris generally believe that while secular government should follow Islamic principles, it need not be (and preferably should not be) synonymous with religious leadership.

    By lumping both groups into a monolithic “Shi’a”, we confuse the issue and end up making invalid assumptions.

  2. hiwa mahmmud says:

    Iraq is disintegrating as a united state. The election for the National Assembly this week may mark the point of no return. “A Bosnian solution to the Iraq crisis is now on the agenda.
    The verdict is not quite in. There are forces for unity as well as for disintegration. But since the fall of Saddam Hussein, it is the latter forces which have proved to be the stronger. Iraqis are beginning to talk about partition as a likely outcome of the crisis. This has already happened in Kurdistan. The Kurds, a fifth of Iraq’s 26 million population, already have quasi-independence, with their own government and armed forces.Iraqi Arab leaders largely accept what has happened in Kurdistan, if only because there is nothing they can do about it.If America and Britain had to abandon Iraq/Kurdistan it would be disastrous for us, therefore leaving would not solve the problem. From the latest poll in Iraq it is clear that the majority of people who believe in the above statement are only Kurds and that the rest of Iraqi communities (particularly Arabs) do support an immediate withdrawal of foreign troops! So if we want to be honest we have to make it clear once and for all that what we see and hear from the media is not the accurate figure and we should listen to ordinary Iraqis inside in order to know the truth. The truth is that the absolute majority of Kurds support every kind of international support, help, guidance and military present as long as that would support the freedom they have enjoyed so far. But what we Kurds do not want is to be abandon and our fate to be decided by Arabs. In my opinion now it is time to tell every single person in the world that we are not Iraqis, we are not Arab and therefore we are the only person who should and will decide our own fate. In fact it is too late and we should have done that from the beginning, when the war started in the first place. But nevertheless we could still argue and say “That the only truth about Iraq is that Iraq was never, is not and will never be united”.