Swapping bullets for ballots

Voting in Iraq can help build the state

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Samarra, 78 miles north of Baghdad, is more than just a city: it is an indicator of tension between Iraq’s Sunnis and Shiites. The majority of Samarra’s population is Sunni, but they make their living out of Shiite pilgrims who come to visit the shrines of two holy imams. On February 22, 2006, those shrines were bombed in an Al Qaeda attack that ignited a bloody sectarian conflict leaving tens of thousands of people killed. What happened on that day divided both cities and neighborhoods into Shiite and Sunni enclaves. Today Samarra is conveying another sign.

The city’s mayor announced last week that its holy sites are receiving 15,000 Shiite pilgrims every day. This was a good indicator of how the security situation is improving in Iraq. But the effects of the sectarian reconciliation are not only visible in Iraq’s security; they have also reshuffled the political priorities in the country. The Iraqi political scene is shifting from sectarian strife to mundane daily politics, including corruption and patronage.

The first sign of this is the decaying public support for major sectarian political groups, many of whom were either accused of direct involvement in violence or participation in incitement. The Shiite Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq is one of them. They were accused of establishing death squads to target Sunnis in retaliation for the killing of Shiites. Their power and influence within major ministries, the army and police were expected to last beyond the American and British withdrawal. To both the groups’ and many observers’ astonishment, they have lost control over most Shiite provinces and subsequently, their major goal of establishing a Shiite autonomous region in the South faded away.

Nouri al Maliki, the incumbent prime minister who supports a strong central government, achieved considerable gains in the provincial elections at the expense of the Supreme Council and Moqtada Sadr, the young, anti-American, populist Shiite leader. What may ease their loss is that they were not alone. Other ethnic and religious groups are encountering similar changes. The Tawafoq Front, the major Sunni parliamentary bloc, whose leader Adnan Dulaimi made fiery anti-Shiite speeches during the past few years, followed suit. Their coalition crumbled over political differences related to the selection of a new parliamentary speaker. The Iraqi Islamic party, the Muslim Brotherhood, was left without its major Sunni ally, the National Dialogue Council. In different provinces, new Sunni groups emerged in the last elections, paving the way for more nuanced choices.

The most astonishing of all surprises was the Kurdish political scene. Since the mid-1990s, that is until after the autonomous Kurdish region’s infamous civil war, the two major Kurdish groups consolidated their power and left little room for dissent. Ethnic tensions and external threats helped maintain Kurdish public support for both the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, led by Jalal Talabani, Iraq’s president, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party whose leader, Massoud Barazani, currently presides over the autonomous region’s presidency. With the relative stability of Iraq’s consensus-based regime, the Kurdish political scene has started to change. Talabani’s party is faltering. Four of its major leaders have submitted their resignation, undermining the Iraqi president’s leadership. They have denounced his family’s ascent into power and the corruption within his establishment. With those high profile politicians out, another party is expected to emerge, thus paving the way for more diversity in the Kurdish political scene.

It is still too early to consider Iraq a stable country. Al Qaeda is still active in Mosul and Diyala and it remains capable of inflicting high casualties and reviving sectarian and ethnic tensions. Nevertheless, the relatively low level of violence and the population’s adaptive trend six years on paves the way for the normalization of politics. The Iraqi security forces capabilities and training are moving forward, in conjunction with reconstruction efforts. It remains hard to predict December’s national elections results. However, six years into Iraq’s invasion we may finally learn what Iraqis really think of their politicians.


Mohanad Hage Ali is a political editor at al-Hayat Newspaper

Mohanad Hage Ali is the director of communications and a fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center.