A new center of political gravity

With Shiites dominating the vote count, Iraq now faces the challenge of including the poorer, less educated and more religious south in forming its new government.


Peter Beaumont
February 7, 2005 6:34PM (UTC)

There is a word used often by politicians in Iraq's deep south: tahmeech, meaning isolation. It is used to say that for decades not a single government minister in Baghdad has come from Iraq's second city, Basra. It signifies a generation of discrimination against Shiites by Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime.

Now, if the initial results of Jan. 30's Iraqi elections prove to represent the final picture, the center of political gravity has shifted inexorably south -- away from the violence of the cities of the north, away from Baghdad and that city's technocratic class -- toward the poverty-stricken, dust-blown Shiite heartland.

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With 35 percent of all polling stations in Iraq reporting results, the coalition of Shiite parties was maintaining a lead of two-thirds of 3.3 million votes counted so far, with the electoral list of religious parties dominating.

As the counting continued Saturday, so did the violence. Four Iraqi soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb in Basra.

While Kurdish and Sunni votes have yet to be counted, it is certain the days of the Shiites' tahmeech are over. And it is not simply in its physical terms that the south has been long separated from the heart of government. In educational, political and social terms, the gulf is enormous. A tiny proportion of people in the south can be described as muthaqaf, or cultured and educated, compared with those in the north.

In the south, 60 percent have not progressed beyond primary education, a difference compounded by the religiosity of the largely Shiite south. How that religiosity will fit into Iraq's new government and constitution, how it will connect with secular Kurds and Sunnis, has become a pressing issue. Central is the role of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who encouraged the formation of List 169, the "Candle" coalition of largely Shiite religious parties. It was Sistani too who ordered Shiites to vote. And it was he who was influential in the decision of Shiite politicians last year to walk out at the end of negotiations on the interim constitution. The question now is what role he will play in Iraq's new politics.

Sayeed Ali al-Safi al-Hakim is Sistani's representative in Basra. He says he speaks only for himself, but it is clear that he reflects the feelings of the clerical leadership, the marjiya, about religion and politics. He says that Islam should be a framework for governance and that where secular politics risks leaving that path, the clerical authority would intervene. "The marjiya called people to vote because it provides the shade for all Iraqis to enjoy," he said.

Although he denies the Candle list was actively endorsed by Sistani and the marjiya in Najaf, many Shiite preachers at the Friday prayers before the elections gave voters that impression, with at least one going so far as to suggest: "Allah would ask how they voted if they died."

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Hakim prefers to outline a more complex relationship between a future government with strong representation of the religious parties and the religious authority in Najaf. "The marjiya always leaves people to decide for themselves," he tells me. "But if it believes [a future government] is against the interest of the people, then it will speak." It is clear the marjiya will watch carefully the attempt to draw up a new constitution. "It is for the committee to solve the problems of a new constitution," says Hakim, "but it should not oppose this country's Islamic identity."

This position, says Simon Collis, Britain's consul in Basra, is designed to keep separate the religious and political authorities in Najaf and Baghdad. "Sistani and those around him think strategically. They want a unified Iraq, so they want guarantees that lock in all Iraqis' rights. That means something Sunnis and Kurds can buy into.

"And if you are looking at what Sistani could have done in terms of interventions, it is clear that he tends toward the quietist school of Shia Islam [that seeks to separate the political and the religious]. If he wanted to be noisier about the vote, he could have. But he used his interventions sparingly."

While the authority of Sistani and the marjiya is expected to have a significant impact on the way mainstream religious parties, such as SCIRI and Dawa, negotiate in the coming year as the new constitution is drawn up, others are looking to their own authority and clerical leadership -- not least the followers of Sadr, who led a violent uprising last summer against coalition troops in the south. While he encouraged some followers to boycott elections held under "the occupation," he allowed others to stand for election as independents.

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Among these is Salam Maliky, 32, Basra's deputy governor, an English graduate involved in the 1999 uprising before being forced to flee Saddam's secret police. Maliky's relationship with Sadr is different from the relationship between the larger parties and Sistani. "We are a religious-political entity, not a party. We are interested in getting religion involved in Iraq's political process," he says.

But while he insists Sadr had no role in the elections, it is clear that he consulted him closely, and Maliky says he will not do anything Sadr would not wish. "If the new government is to be successful, its basis should be Islam. But I want to stress that none of the religious parties wants to establish an Islamic government in Iraq."


Peter Beaumont

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