As Iraq prepares for its 30 January elections for a National Assembly, Shi'a candidates are widely expected to win the greatest number of seats. One reason is that the Shi'a are the largest community in Iraq -- making up an estimated 60 percent of the population. Another is that some parts of central Iraq populated by the once dominant Sunni community remain too restive to assure a large voter turnout. If the Shi'a do become the country's most politically powerful community, how will that affect Iraq's prospects for developing a stable, more democratic system of government?
Prague, 20 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- In recent days, Iraq's Shi'a politicians have spoken increasingly frankly about the likelihood that the 30 January vote will produce a Shi'a-majority National Assembly.
One of the most prominent Shi'a politicians, Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, said yesterday that Sunnis and all others in Iraq will be included in the new government if the Shi'a win most of the assembly's 275 seats.
Al-Hakim, the leader of the Shi'a-based Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), heads one of the strongest candidate lists in the poll, the United Iraqi Alliance. The list, which includes candidates from Iraq's other communities, is expected to get wide Shi'a support because it is endorsed by preeminent Shi'a cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
But what will a Shi'a victory in the elections mean for Iraq's political development? RFE/RL asked two Iraqi analysts for their opinions.
Ammar al-Shahbander of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting has spent the last 16 months in Iraq and is now in London. He said a Shi'a win in the elections will mostly be a "sentimental" victory for the community and would not necessarily lead to Shi'a political dominance.
"Everybody is speaking of a Shi'a parliament, of a Shi'a majority, or a Shi'a victory [because] this issue has a sentimental value, because it's the first time the Shi'a have a real chance to participate in the politics of Iraq. It is going to mean that this parliament will have the highest percentage of Shi'as as individuals. It doesn't mean that the Shi'as will be there as one block and will form a political majority," al-Shahbander said.
Al-Shahbander predicts that after the Shi'a win a majority of seats in the assembly, the victory will be followed by new rounds of coalition building that could help redress imbalances from low Sunni participation in the election. The activity could see Shi'a secular and religious parties that have come together for the poll breaking ranks to forge new intercommunity coalitions of their own.
"The current coalitions and the current blocks, people who are joining together to enter the election -- that's only temporary, it's only for the election. As soon as the election is over, we will witness the abolition of these blocks and the establishment of new blocks, and I am sure these new blocks will surprise everyone," al-Shahbander said.
Mahmud Uthman, an independent Kurdish politician and member of the former Iraqi Governing Council, also sees new rounds of coalition building as highly likely after the election. He said the fact that many candidate lists for the election are a mix of Sunni, Shi'a, and Kurdish candidates favors a future politics of shifting alliances that will supersede single community interests.
"There will be different sorts of people in the assembly, and things would come up in a coalition [process]. I think a coalition will win, not Shi'a alone. The Shi'a alone, maybe they make up the majority of Iraqi people, but they are on different lists. You see Shi'a in all the lists. You see Sunnis in all the lists. You see Christians in almost all the lists. That's why the danger of a Shi'a win, as some people will put it, I don't think it poses that much of a danger, as such. But the danger is that some people will participate in the election, others are against it, and the violence will continue after the election," Uthman said.
Insurgents -- who are most active in Sunni-populated areas -- are launching daily attacks to disrupt the elections, claiming they are rigged by the United States. At the same time, some Sunni community leaders have called for a boycott of the vote over security concerns or because they say the polls will hand power to the Shi'a majority at the Sunnis' expense.
A top Iraqi official warned this week that a Sunni boycott of the poll could lead to civil strife. Interior Minister Falah al-Naqib said, "Boycotting means betrayal and the sparking of civil war." He said that "if the National Assembly does not represent all Iraqis, we will enter civil war and division of the country."
The largest Shi'a block to remain after the election could be made up of religious parties.
These parties, too, are divided by rivalries -- particularly between SCIRI and the followers of radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The two camps have previously been at odds as SCIRI has participated in Iraq's U.S.-backed interim administrations, while al-Sadr's followers have twice launched major insurrections against U.S. forces.
But the two groups -- now both in the United Iraqi Alliance -- share an interest in promoting a more Islamic form of government and could become a formidable force working in that direction.
Analysts say the Iraqi Shi'a parties stop short of espousing a theocracy like that in neighboring Shi'a Iran. But the Shi'a parties already participating in the interim government -- along with Sunni religious parties -- have pressed for giving a greater role to Shari'a (Islamic law) in Iraq's legal system and for declaring Islam to be Iraq's state religion, while still allowing followers of other religions to worship freely.
Al-Shahbander calls some of the religious parties' constitutional goals "symbolic." But he said other goals, such as encouraging religious people to enter politics, could directly impact Iraq's political development. "Having an Islamic state in Iraq, in Iraqi terms, is much more symbolic rather than real, i.e. stating in the constitution that the religion of the state is Islam," he said. "In reality, that doesn't mean anything because religion is for practicing individuals. The other aspect is to have religious individuals in power because there is some sort of a belief that a religious person would be honest and sincere and would really serve the community."
Uthman said that during his tenure on the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, representatives of secularist and religious parties often clashed -- including over whether Shari'a should govern divorce cases. But he said that he views the religious parties as ultimately willing to work within a consensus-based parliamentary system.
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