Shiites Say Iraqi Government Will Be Secular

Shiites in Iraq Say Government Will Be Secular (NYT, p. 1)

With the Shiites on the brink of capturing power here for the first time, their political leaders say they have decided to put a secular face on the new Iraqi government they plan to form, relegating Islam to a supporting role. The senior leaders of the United Iraqi Alliance, the coalition of mostly Shiite groups that is poised to capture the most votes in the election next Sunday, have agreed that the Iraqi whom they nominate to be the country’s next prime minister would be a lay person, not an Islamic cleric. The Shiite leaders say there is a similar but less formal agreement that clerics will also be excluded from running the government ministries. “There will be no turbans in the government,” said Adnan Ali, a senior leader of the Dawa Party, one of the largest Shiite parties. “Everyone agrees on that.”

The decision appears to formalize the growing dominance of secular leaders among the Shiite political leadership, and it also reflects an inclination by the country’s powerful religious hierarchy to stay out of the day-to-day governing of the country. Among the Shiite coalition’s 228 candidates for the national assembly, fewer than a half dozen are clerics, according to the group’s leaders. The decision to exclude clerics from the government appears to mean that Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, a cleric who is the chief of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the scion of a prominent religious family and an oft-mentioned candidate for prime minister, would be relegated to the background. The five Shiites most likely to be picked as prime minister are well-known secular figures.

Shiite leaders say their decision to move away from an Islamist government was largely shaped by the presumption that the Iraqi people would reject such a model. But they concede that it also reflects certain political realities – American officials, who wield vast influence here, would be troubled by an overtly Islamist government. So would the Kurds, who Iraqi and American officials worry might be tempted to break with the Iraqi state. The emerging policies appear to be a rejection of an Iranian-style theocracy. Iran has given both moral and material support to the country’s two largest Shiite parties, Dawa and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

This is excellent news, indeed, although it may increase the desperation of the opposition movements. Already, the leading foreign terrorist and most prominent Shi’a insurgent leader have both decried the elections.

Militant Declares War on Iraqi Vote (WaPo, Ao1)

The most feared and wanted militant in Iraq declared a “fierce war” against democracy Sunday and repeated a threat to disrupt national elections scheduled for next Sunday. Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian whose al Qaeda-linked group has asserted responsibility for some of the deadliest attacks in postwar Iraq, called candidates running in the elections “demi-idols” and the people who plan to vote for them “infidels,” according to a speech reportedly made by him and broadcast on a Web site. “We have declared a fierce war on this evil principle of democracy and those who follow this wrong ideology,” said the speaker, who identified himself as Zarqawi. “Anyone who tries to help set up this system is part of it.”

Zarqawi said the Americans had rigged the election to favor Iraq’s majority Shiite Muslim population, which was persecuted under deposed leader Saddam Hussein. Zarqawi also accused the Shiites of selling out to the Americans. “Oh, people of Iraq,” he said in the broadcast, “where is your honor? Have you accepted oppression of the crusader harlots . . . and the rejectionist pigs?”

Sadr Group Signals Rejection Of Election (WaPo, A01)

Around the corner from a five-mile line stretching toward a gas station, past election posters calling voting a religious duty, hundreds of bleary-eyed protesters threw down what goes for prayer carpets among followers of the Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada Sadr. They put down black-checkered kaffiyehs, the sweaters they wore, sacks of flour distributed as government rations and, most commonly, scraps of cardboard. It was noon, the time for Muslims to pray. It was time, too, for them to make their demands heard at the Iraqi Oil Ministry as part of a four-day protest last week over Iraq’s months-long fuel crisis. “They must hear that the Iraqi people will always demand their rights, even if we give our lives!” the preacher declared. Behind him, slogans put up on a concrete blast wall echoed the protesters’ pleas. “We don’t want elections,” one read. “We want electricity.”

The protest in Baghdad and others in towns across southern Iraq, including Kut, Amarah and Karbala, marked the latest campaign by Sadr’s group, a grass-roots movement led by Shiite clergy that claims to speak on behalf of the Shiite downtrodden. Through protests, sermons and declarations by the reclusive Sadr, the movement is signaling its doubts about the Iraqi election, ending months of ambiguity over whether Sadr had surrendered his arms for a place in the political process. Sadr’s militia fought U.S. forces twice last year, in Baghdad and southern Iraq, and the movement has emerged as a persistent wild card in the U.S. plan for a durable political system that will leave Iraq with a modicum of stability and permit an American military withdrawal. The decisive moment may come Sunday, when Iraqis go to the polls to choose a national assembly, the country’s first real election in half a century.

Sadr’s men have stopped short of calling for a boycott but insist they are not supporting the election. In coded language, they have ridiculed Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the country’s most influential religious leader, whose perceived backing of the top Shiite coalition has made it the favorite in the vote. Loath to provoke the U.S. military, which killed hundreds of its followers in last year’s fighting, the Sadr movement has relegated its militia to a lower profile while keeping up its strident rhetoric. The movement is gambling that the deep disenchantment in the capital over epidemic kidnappings, shortfalls in food rations, the threat of insurgent attacks and, most visibly, the fuel crisis will persist under a new government.

That Zarqawi and Sadr believe their causes ill served by free and open elections is a good thing. This doesn’t mean that elections will solve everything–or, indeed, anything–in the short term. But it would seem to be an indication that the Iraqi people, free from fear of reprisal, would not support the insurgency. A secular government that works out some substantial autonomy for the Kurd and Sunni regions would, therefore, be a major step toward an insurgent-free endstate.

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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. anjin-san says:

    More good news from Iraq:

    Iraqi authorities routinely torture prisoners, a leading human rights group said Tuesday, citing examples of abuse which will sound all too familiar to those who suffered under Saddam Hussein.

    Prisoners have been beaten with cables and hosepipes, and suffered electric shocks to their earlobes and genitals, the U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch said. Some have been starved of food and water and crammed into standing-room only cells.

    “The people of Iraq were promised something better than this after the government of Saddam Hussein fell,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of the group’s Middle East and North Africa division.