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The absent political alternative in Iraq

July 10, 2024 at 8:49 am

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi holds a national dialogue meeting with the representatives of political parties in the presence of Iraqi President Barham Salih, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq Jeanine Hennis Plasschaert and the heads of the legislature and the judiciary in Baghdad, Iraq on August 17, 2022. [Iraqi PM Press Office – Anadolu Agency]

It was clear after the American occupation overthrew Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, that Iraqi society did not have a solid foundation for free political activity, dealing with the ethics of societal political work, competition between different movements and the philosophy of political work as a whole. All of this is due to the absence of real political activity and free political life for 45 years, since the monarchy was overthrown by the military in 1958.

There was a belief that there is a need to work with an interim Iraqi government that would cooperate with the occupation forces’ Coalition Provisional Authority to impose security and control in the country, and to lay the psychological foundations for accepting the sweeping transformation that had occurred, and to proceed with a transitional phase that would help spread the new democratic political action. However, two factors cancelled this idea. The first is the emergence of armed resistance acts, both Sunni and Shia, which made the situation unstable and did not encourage a long transitional period under direct management by the occupation forces. The second is the spread of a rumour that when the Americans get bored, they would restore the Baathist regime, hand it authority in the country, and leave. This rumour was widely spread among the ranks of former Baathists and resistance fighters allied with terrorist organisations, such as the Jama’at Al-Tawhid Wal-Jihad, led by Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi.

It is also a rumour that was spread within the Shia political and religious circles, making them doubt the Americans’ loyalty to the initial agreements reached, in light of which Saddam Hussein’s regime was toppled. There was a push to hand over power to the Iraqis through general elections. This was achieved later, which made 2005 a strange year, opening the door to bombings, suicide operations and confrontations between Shia militias and the Americans. 2005 witnessed three general elections: the elections for the Transitional Iraqi National Assembly (30 January 30), then the referendum on the constitution (15 October), and finally the parliamentary elections (15 December). The voting days did not pass without terrorist acts that claimed the lives of many.

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It was clear that the political culture and understanding of democratic mechanisms had not yet been established, and that the Iraqi people were not prepared to make critical decisions within an atmosphere that threatened civil war, the variety of desires and loyalties, the continued deterioration of security and service conditions, and a general sense of threat. In this atmosphere, a Shia scholar belonging to one of the political movements appeared on television and issued a fatwa that whoever did not vote for the list he was on must prepare to answer to God on the Day of Resurrection. Posters appeared on the walls, as well as numerous extremist brochures promising woe, destruction and the torment of hell to those who do not vote.

Outside of these voices was the position of the Najaf authority which was in support of voters going to the polls. According to the opinion of some researchers, at every stage of the transfer of power from the occupier to the Iraqis, the authority continued to play the role of mediator, which would normally be represented by civil society organisations, which were absent and ineffective at those times. This is in addition to the obsession with focusing power in the hands of the Shia Islamic movements as soon as possible, and not allowing the Americans to create counter-Shia movements that are secular and liberal. The legitimacy of the entire new regime depends on the keenness of the Shias and Kurds – and some Sunnis – to work within the new regime, especially with a Democrat, Barack Obama, being sworn in as US president in January 2009. Obama had called the Iraqi file his predecessor’s trash that he wanted to take out of the White House as soon as possible.

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In the last two electoral experiences (12 May 2018, and 10 October 2021), the Najaf authority abandoned the role of direct mediator. Have the Iraqis gained sufficient political experience to accurately understand the mechanisms of political action without the mediation of religious institutions or the propaganda of Islamic parties that utilise religion in their speech to the general public? In truth, the investment in religion and religious symbols continued, because the political movements have no clear programs, and the main variable that indicates the increase in political experience among Iraqis is their feeling of the bankruptcy of these movements, and the absence of a strong alternative as of yet. This has prompted the majority of them to abstain from voting on polling day, which was the case in the 2021 elections.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Araby Al-Jadeed on 9 July 2024

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.