DAMASCUS - Four years ago, anybody preaching a non-sectarian agenda in Iraq
would have been scoffed at by voters and ridiculed by ordinary Iraqis. In times
of war, voices of reason are usually silenced by those who scream sectarian
rhetoric, calling on Sunnis to eject Shi'ites from power or Shi'ites to strike
at traditional enemies in the Sunni community.
Anyone who speaks a different language is cornered to become a political
outcast, because that is what the street wants to hear. Usually, these fanatics
have militias to lean on. When a Sunni or a Shi'ite walks up to his community
leader and complains that a dear family member has been slain, the last thing
he needs is someone calling on him to calm down, take the matter to court
and have faith in Iraqi justice.
Three notable exceptions to the sectarian chorus in Iraq are former prime
minister Iyad Allawi, and Sunni leaders Saleh al-Mutlak and Adnan al-Pachachi.
Last week, they formed the Iraqi National Movement (INM), to run in the
parliamentary elections scheduled for January.
This coalition clearly stands out amid all other groups in Iraq due to its
secularism, balance and, most notably, the political wisdom of its leaders. As
of early November, the five main coalitions competing for power in January are:
The State of Law Alliance, headed by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Although
sharply criticized by opponents of the current regime, this alliance seems to
be the strongest in Iraq. It includes a limited number of influential Sunnis,
like the deputy speaker of parliament, Shiekh Khaled al-Atiyya, and tribal
leaders like Said Yawer al-Shummari and Ali Hatem Suleiman, head of the Dulaim
Other important people include: female activist Safia Talib al-Suheil,
ex-ambassador Sadeq al-Rikabi; government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh; and Oil
Minister Hussein al-Shahristani. It also includes the ministers of education,
health, tourism, immigration, youth, sports and parliamentary affairs. Although
most of the strongmen on this alliance are Shi'ite, Maliki claims that it
speaks for all Iraqis and will work to promote and protect the interests of
both Sunnis and Shi'ites, under "a state of law".
The Iraqi National Alliance (INA), headed by ex-prime minister Ibrahim
al-Jaafary. Unlike other coalitions, which are cross-confessional, the INA is
composed of only heavyweight Shi'ites. It will absorb a majority of the Shi'ite
vote, banking on the influence and prestige of seasoned statesmen like Vice
President Adel Abdul Mehdi and Ammar al-Hakim of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic
Council, cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and Ahmad Chalabi, a former deputy prime
minister and oil minister.
The Iraqi Unity Alliance (IUA), headed by current Interior Minister Jawad
al-Boulani (Shi'ite) and Sheikh Ahmad Abu Risheh (Sunni), is the weakest of all
the major coalitions. Boulani has jumped from one political party to another
since the downfall of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003, shedding serious doubt
over his political credibility. He has served office with the Sadrists, the
Islamic Virtue Party, the National Congress and the Shi'ite Political Council.
His tenure as minister since 2006 earned him many enemies among Sunnis, who
accused Boulani of allowing Shi'ite militias to use police uniforms and
automobiles to strike at the Sunni community while doing very little to protect
entire Sunni neighborhoods. Additionally, during his tenure, horrendous attacks
took place in Baghdad in August and October this year, killing nearly 250
people and wounding another 1,000.
Most Iraqis blame the prime minister and Boulani for failing to prevent the
attacks. The co-chair of the IUA hails from a leading Sunni tribe, but is
himself a leader by accident, having inherited the post from his brother Abdul
Sattar, who was slain by al-Qaeda for cuddling up to president George W Bush,
in 2007. Abu Risheh's influence among Sunnis is limited, where many people see
him as a colorless figure that is too close to the US. He is incapable of
getting Sunni voters to back the campaign of his running mate, Boulani, and
likewise, the latter's clout is too small to get Shi'ite voters to vote for Abu
The Iraqi Accordance Front (IFA), headed by a coalition of Sunni leaders,
currently holds 44 out of the 275 seats in parliament. Like the INA, it does
not claim to be a cross-confessional coalition, but rather bluntly claims to be
speaking for the 10 million Sunnis.
It contains heavyweight groups in the Sunni community who are furious at having
been ejected from power in 2003, with little respect and ceremony, and dreams
of making a strong comeback into the political process by gaining more seats in
parliament, more allocated portfolios in the cabinet and, possibly, the Iraqi
presidency. The IFA includes the Iraqi Islamic Party, the People of Iraq
Coalition (headed by Adnan al-Duleimi) and influential figures like Iyad
Samarrai, the current speaker of parliament.
The Iraqi National Movement (INM) that was recently announced, headed by
ex-prime minister Allawi. The co-chair of the INM is Saleh al-Mutlak, a former
Ba'athist, academic and secular Sunni notable from Anbar province. It calls for
accountability, rule of law, secularism and crushing religious extremism on the
streets of Baghdad.
The INM is the only party in the parliamentary race that truly wants to unite
the ranks of Sunnis and Shi'ites. Many in the Western press wonder how
successful such a coalition can be, when it stands against religiously-driven
groups that are backed by strong countries in the neighborhood.
Yet this is something that makes the INM special. Maliki's State of Law
Coalition and the INA, for example, are backed by Iran, while the Accordance
Front is backed by Saudi Arabia. Nobody backs Allawi at this stage. Had he
wanted an easy comeback to power during the civil war years (2005-2008) he
could have given the Iraqi street what it wanted to hear: plenty of sectarian
rhetoric. He refused, however, living by his convictions that only in a secular
and united nation will ordinary Iraqis find normalcy.
Having said that, it is not possible to pick a clear winner for January. At one
point it seemed that sectarianism was beginning to fade among ordinary Iraqis,
who were fed up with the civil strife of 2005-2008 and wanted to let bygones be
bygones. That no longer stands after the August 19 and October 25 attacks in
Baghdad, which have poisoned the waters once again, between different sects and
That is why nobody can predict for sure how successful - or not - the INM will
be. The fact that such a coalition stands, however, insisting that secularism
is not dead, is reassuring. In 2005, no secular groups ran for office - only
religiously driven politicians in the Iran-backed United Iraqi Alliance (UIA).
Now, there is one secular group and hopefully by the elections in 2015 seculars
will outnumber the sectarian politicians; this depends on the results in