Iraq's New Politics

Why Sectarianism Is Out

A member of Kurdish the security forces shows his ink-stained fingers after casting an early ballot in Sulaimaniya.
A member of Kurdish the security forces shows his ink-stained fingers after casting an early ballot in Sulaimaniya, April 28, 2014. (Yahya Ahmad / Courtesy Reuters)

As Iraq readies for general elections at the end of this month, sectarian tensions hang over the country, just as in elections past. But this time, there is a twist: despite the population’s deep divides, Iraqi politics have refused to play by the old sectarian rules. In fact, most long-standing ethno-sectarian parties have fractured and, in some cases, key political issues are starting to cut across religious identities. As a result, the election will likely have no clear winner, and only the subsequent struggle to form a new cabinet will reveal which way Iraq is really headed in the coming years.

A lot has changed since Iraq’s first post-invasion parliamentary poll in December 2005. Back then, sectarian issues were extremely pronounced: nearly all the major Shiite parties had joined the United Iraqi Alliance, an umbrella group. Kurdish parties, meanwhile, had come together under the Kurdistan Alliance. Sunnis also had a coalition, but a much weaker one. After the elections, the Shiite coalition, which had won big, named Nuri al-Maliki prime minister and granted the Kurdish coalition some key positions to keep it invested in the new government.

In the next elections, in 2010, the party lineup was far less polarized. Ahead of the elections, the Shiite coalition broke down into two distinctive alliances, one headed by Maliki and the other headed by his main Shiite competitors. Simultaneously, Iraqiya -- which had been a distinctively secular party -- joined with many Sunni leaders in a new alternative bloc that looked far less sectarian than the main Sunni list in the previous election.

A few months ahead of elections, though, Shiite hard-liners pushed the question of de-Baathification onto the agenda, which forced Maliki, who had tried to be somewhat secular, to toe a more sectarian line. After the election, as the long process of forming a government began, the major sectarian fronts were formally reconstituted. All the main Shiite parties came together under their old umbrella organization and struck a deal with the Kurds -- who were also unified -- to guarantee support for a second term for Maliki. The United States cajoled the Sunni-secular Iraqiya, which had won the most parliamentary seats, into participating in the government.

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