IEMed Mediterranean Yearbook 2005


Panorama : The Mediterranean Year


Iraq Heads Towards a Shia Turning Point

M. A. Bastenier

Deputy Director of El País, Madrid

The legislative elections which took place on 30th January in Iraq, the first to deserve that name in the history of this country founded by British mandate in 1922, appear to mark a before and after in the Middle East, even if they still have not delivered the awakening of democracy foretold by the United States, whose troops have occupied the country since March 2003. However, it is also plausible that President Bush likes the after much less than the before. For the moment, the elections have served their purpose for the emergence of a robot portrait of Iraq, about which much had been said, but never publicly in Baghdad, during the previous 80 years during which authoritarian regimes had imposed their own particular vision of the land of the Tigris and Euphrates.

At the end of January Iraq had chosen a constituent assembly of 275 members, with the entire country considered as a single electoral district and under an electoral system of proportional representation; in other words, that every one of the lists received the number of seats corresponding to the percentage obtained of the total votes counted. Iraq has some 27-28 million inhabitants, of which it is calculated that around 21-22 million would be potential voters, but the proconsul of the occupying power up to 30th January, Paul Bremer, established that it was obligatory to register in order to vote, as in the United States. Only 18 million Iraqis did so – all estimates about participation in the exercise of suffrage have been based on this last figure, with the intention of making them look as inflated as possible. In this way, the percentage of turnout at the vote used by the world press has been 58%, 8.5 million voters, when, not having any reason to forget those who did not bother to register on the electoral roll, the actual figure should be reduced to less than 40%. The fact that this percentage is still more than considerable, taking into account the situation of terror and ambush warfare against the occupier being suffered by the citizens, should not prevent the real arithmetic from being done instead of the virtual calculations preferred by Washington. The 275 elected representatives have to pass a constitution, already written-up by a group of experts agreeable to the United States, but which the constituent members could reject or amend in depth. A referendum will be held in November in order to proceed to new legislative elections before the end of the year, with the constitutional text as the fundamental policy document.

Iraq is the Arab country in which the conflict between the two main tenets of Islam is most strongly established. Shiism only achieves majority status in Iran (‘Aryan country’, as the name suggests) and Sunnism encompasses 90% of the 1.3 billion Muslims on the planet, with a similar percentage within the Arab world with more than 250 million adherents. Although the figures are by necessity the fruit of a certain accounting wishful thinking given that there have never been reliable censuses, it is thought that between 60 and 65% of Iraqis are Shias and almost all the rest are Sunnis, with a very small Christian minority, generally of oriental rites, as well as other religious factions. Furthermore, of those 35% Sunnis, only half are Arabs and the rest correspond to the Kurdish people, who inhabit the north of the country and have been at guerrilla warfare since the 1920s to gain independence or a more or less opportunistic negotiation with the Arab majority for the constitution of their own political entity, which would mean a Kurdish province or region within a federal state. And all the regimes that have dominated the country, since Hashemite rule (1922–58) until successive military dictatorships under the shelter of the Ba’ath party, in whose name ruled the toppled Saddam Hussein (1968–2003), have shared the common theme that power would be monopolised by the Sunni Arab minority, to the detriment of the Shias and Kurds.

The formation of electoral lists highly representative of a real Iraq has also been deduced from the exceptionally strong division of this explosive ethnic-religious affiliation binomial, with the certainty that the Sunni Arab minority has boycotted the elections almost down to the last voter, after which their leaders repeatedly branded the vote as illegal and degraded by the foreign occupation. A large Shia list, the United Iraqi Alliance, made up of 11 parties and of these of the two largely majority parties, Dawa (Dawn) and the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), has obtained the absolute majority on taking 140 seats with 48% of the vote; in the same manner, the fact that the Sunni vote was virtually non-existent has given second place to the Kurdish minority, whose only list gained more than 70 seats and 25% of the vote; and in third place came a list of the secular Shia majority supported by the United States, directed by the then prime minister, Ayad Alui, with less than 14% of the vote and only 27 seats. This support from the voters registered was equivalent to no more than 7-8% of Arab Iraqis; more or less than before the invasion?

The first democratic Government in the history of Iraq will therefore be made up of the Dawa and SCIRI list whose true (although not official) leader, followed by the 11 parties of the coalition, is Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Born in Iran, he has only lived in Iraq since 1951 when he was a recently ‘qualified’ young cleric. But it is clear that the Alliance list will have to find support from other formations in order to govern, as, in order to protect the minorities of Kurds and Sunnis, it has been established that the immediate election of the president and two vice presidents as well as the eventual approval of the constituent text will require a majority of two-thirds of the chamber. On this basis it is speculated that the Kurdish list could be given the presidency, which is a more decorative than functional role, in exchange for admitting the Shias to the leadership of the Government – possibly the secular moderate, Ibrahim Jaafari – and one of the two vice presidencies. The second of these would be held for a Sunni, although this would have to wait until the followers of this branch of Islam, who are now feeding the insurrection against the occupiers and their collaborators in Baghdad, end up joining the constituent process through negotiations.

In order to attempt to map out the course of future Iraqi politics, however, it is essential to review the nature of the two main components of the Shia list. Dawa, founded doubly in Iraqi exile and in Lebanon at the end of the 1950s with the support of Tehran, proposes the creation of an Islamic republic, not dominated by the religious apparatus, but instead a high secular bureaucracy. The similarity with any of the forces that appeared at first after Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution in 1979 can be deceptive even in the most obvious ways. The candidate with most support to become leader of the Government, Jaafari, calls to mind Mehdi Bazargan, the engineer educated in France who secured leadership of the Iranian Government and was devoured by the radicalisation that marked the occupation of the U.S. embassy in November of the same year. Bazargan died in Tehran in 1995, where he lived in obscurity after his overthrow by a reactionary tide. And if Jaafari is the leader of the moderate faction – those who would never assault a western legation – a hard line is also not lacking, led by Abdul Karim Unzi. The Supreme Council (SCIRI), for its part, was founded in Tehran in 1982 as a general organisation that would shelter all Shias living overseas, opposed to the governing of the Sunni Saddam Hussein. It has been generally considered as a personal creation of the Great Ayatollah, Ruhollah Khomeini. This Iranian form of the ‘PLO’ created its own military force, Badr (lightning), which trained with the elite Revolutionary Guard volunteer corps and carried out a number of modest terrorist acts in Iraq during the years of exile. If judgement is to be made based on the facts, since British forces installed elements of Badr as local authorities last summer in the Basra area in the south, their militants have imposed the strict observance of the use of the veil, the closure of off-licences and in general, the personal code of conduct particular to Sharia (Islamic law).

Washington has guaranteed to its followers in Iraq, as well as the rest of the Middle Eastern Arab world, that it will never allow the formation of an independent Kurdistan, something that Turkey and Iran will also look out for, given the significant Kurdish minorities found within their borders. However, an ‘Iranian’ derivative of the new Baghdad regime could oblige the United States to use its secure Kurdish ally to moderate the Shia leaders. In exchange for not pushing in favour of independence, which, however, 95% of the Kurdish population supports according to the most reliable polls, these neo-autonomists could demand the constitution of a unique Kurdish province in an eventual political re-demarcation of the country. Iraq currently has 18 provinces and in three of these the Kurds are clearly in the majority, whilst maintaining substantial minorities in another three. Therefore, they would request the amalgamation of the former three with some areas of the latter, but always in such a way that Kirkuk, the centre of oil installations in the North, was to remain in the Kurdish territory. The problem is that in Kirkuk the majority are Arab and Turkmeni, in no way prepared to tolerate a Kurdish government. The best guarantee that Iraq will remain united, however, and much more convincing than the vague federalist plans that the western powers entertain and that the Arab world, strongly unitarian, has never shared, is the evidence that oil will run out in the North far before it does so in the South, concentrated as it is around the strongly Shia position of Rumallah close to Kuwait. Without this wealth Iraq would become a second-league Arab country.

An international survey carried out days before the vote established that almost 70% of the Shias and 82% of the Sunnis wanted the United States to leave Iraq, either immediately or after a temporary halt to last only as long as the constituting period. The possibility of an Iraq free of occupiers in one or two year’s time must be considered. It does not seem like exaggeration, therefore, to now say that Washington has failed in its long-term objectives: the establishment of a friendly government in Baghdad, but we could not expect that democratisation of the country – a process which is at best only just beginning – were like a kind of tsunami that sweeps away dictatorships on its way through the Middle East. However, at least in the short-term it has salvaged the situation with the tacit agreement reached with the Shia majority that the Americans would organise the elections and they would win them, although at the moment they cannot present their true colours. And those colours could be around the corner within a few years – an Islamic regime, civil rather than clerical, with a certain degree of pluralism and excellent relations with Tehran, without giving in to them; and, finally, that which perhaps concerns most the neo-conservatives who are deafening President Bush with advice, as much of an enemy of Israel as Saddam Hussein himself. Hardly good business for Washington.