Allawi’s secularism may not fly in today’s Iraq, where religion, politics are inseparable

By Qassim Abdul-zahra, AP
Monday, April 12, 2010

Allawi’s secularism may not fly in today’s Iraq

BAGHDAD — In a nation where religion and politics have become nearly inseparable, can a secular politician be prime minister of Iraq?

The question has moved to the heart of Iraq’s complex politics after a coalition led by secular Shiite Ayad Allawi emerged as the biggest vote winner in last month’s elections, winning 91 of the legislature’s 325 seats, edging out a bloc led by the incumbent, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, by only two seats.

Allawi served as prime minister in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, but that was only because he was hand-picked by the Americans when they formally ended their occupation of the country in June 2004.

It’s a different story now. Both of the post-Saddam prime ministers who came to office through elections — Ibrahim al-Jaafari and al-Maliki — were members of a religious Shiite party. Now religious parties and even top clerics maneuver to try to ward off a leader they see as not Shiite enough.

It’s not just because he is secular. Allawi’s Iraqiya coalition won because of solid support by the country’s once-dominant Sunni Arab minority. That taints Allawi in the eyes of many Shiites, some of whom see his coalition as a scheme to return to power the community that under Saddam oppressed the majority Shiites and fed the ranks of the insurgency after 2003.

“Allawi does not represent the Shiites,” said a senior official from one of the country’s largest religious Shiite parties, the Iranian-backed Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, or SIIC.

“Only politicians who regularly call on the country’s top Shiite clerics in Najaf for advice represent the Shiites,” said the official, referring to the ayatollahs in the holy city south of Baghdad who wield major political influence. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the subject’s sensitivity.

Allawi acknowledges that his path to the prime minister’s job will be difficult and that his rivals will likely try to disqualify many of the 91 winning candidates who back him. Two-thirds of them are Sunni, making them vulnerable to accusations of links to Saddam’s regime from a Shiite-led vetting committee.

“There are many formidable hurdles,” he told The Associated Press this week.

Saddam’s 2003 ouster set Iraq on a rocky shift to democratic rule, but it also unleashed a powerful sense of entitlement among the Shiites who make up about 65 percent of the population: After decades of repression, now it was their rightful turn to rule.

For most Shiites, that meant a turn deep into the religious right. At the same time, Sunnis have turned to their own hardline religious figures. The greater fundamentalism has eclipsed the secular traditions promoted by Saddam’s ruling Baath Party, whose pan-Arab and nationalist ideology are now seen by Shiites and Kurds as oppressive of Iraq’s diversity.

The Shiite clergy has assumed a much more powerful role in politics than their Sunni counterparts. Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, effectively shepherded the country during the post-Saddam turmoil and ensured the unity and domination of the Shiites.

Al-Sistani has shown a thinly veiled preference for Shiite religious parties like the Supreme Council, al-Maliki’s Dawa Party and, more recently, supporters of fiery cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

The divisions have been enshrined in an informal — but seemingly unbreakable — divvying up of Iraq’s leadership along sectarian and ethnic lines: the prime minister is a Shiite, the president a Kurd and parliament speaker a Sunni Arab.

But Iraqiya’s surprisingly good showing in the March 7 vote suggests that a significant segment of Iraqis, both Shiite and Sunni, may have grown fed up with religious parties because of their perceived failure to improve the economy and provide better basic services.

Allawi rode to his win on a secular platform calling for Iraq to move beyond sectarian divisions. Sunnis responded strongly — in part because of fears of Shiite religious power, but also because they feel they deserve a say in running the country after Sunni militias rose up against al-Qaida and helped turn the tide against Iraq’s rampant violence.

But in the eyes of hard-liners, only a religious Shiite campaigning on Shiite interests is a real representative of the sect and deserving of the prime minister’s post.

“So, if he becomes prime minister, will that mean a Shiite really got the job or someone representing the Sunnis?” said Salah al-Obeidi, the chief spokesman for the Sadrist movement.

Al-Sistani, who holds a revered status among Shiites, also may be reluctant to give his stamp of approval of Allawi as prime minister, according to an aide.

“The marjaiyah (religious Shiite leadership) sees Allawi as the representative of the secular trend. We don’t see him as a representative of the Shiites,” said the aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to share al-Sistani’s views with the media. “We are closely monitoring the situation.”

Allawi’s Iraqiya was the biggest vote winner in five mostly Sunni provinces, came a close second in Baghdad with 24 seats and won a handful more in the mainly Shiite southern region.

In theory, Allawi should get first shot to try to form a ruling coalition because of his edge in parliament seats. But Shiite parties are trying to avert that.

With possible encouragement from Iran, al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition and the Iraqi National Alliance led by SIIC and the Sadrists have been negotiating a merger that would leave them only four seats short of a majority in the 325-member legislature.

Such a merger would not necessarily exclude Iraqiya from participating in the next government, as the SIIC has said it should, but would leave the prospect of Allawi becoming prime minister questionable.

It also would likely be met with the approval of al-Sistani and resonate among the many Shiites who view Allawi’s Iraqiya bloc as an underhanded Sunni scheme to restore the community to political power, backed by Sunni-ruled Arab nations.

“Iraqiya ran on a nationalist platform, but in reality it is a Sunni bloc,” said Ali al-Adeeb, a close aide of al-Maliki. “Allawi was the front and the Sunnis exploited the fact that he is a Shiite.”

Hendawi reported from Cairo.

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