Ghassan Atiyyah

Ghassan Atiyyah
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Constitutions, Elections, Extremism, Featured, Iraq, Islamist Politics, Political Parties, Political Reform



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The 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein, a secular, nationalist dictator, has unwittingly served the continuing hold of sectarianism over nearly every country in the region. In Iraq, political instability has played into the hands of extremist forces on all sides, fueling a dangerously tense sectarian environment in which individuals are identified by sect rather than as Iraqi citizens. Looking ahead to the 2014 parliamentary elections, there is a clear need for a moderate, secular platform that goes beyond ethno-sectarian divides to restore the public’s faith in a non-violent political solution.

Deterioration of Human Rights in Iraq

The first victim of any ethnic or sectarian conflict is human rights, especially in an atmosphere of sectarian polarization that Iraq has lived through since the occupation in 2003. No longer is a human seen as an individual, but rather as a part of a sect who is damned because of his identity. Hence, we now see murder, torture, and kidnapping based on a person’s religion; an expression of sectarian revenge of making an individual take the blame for the sect to which he belongs.

Although the constitution discusses the freedom of mobility, the sectarian mentality forced on the Iraqi citizen is a harsh reality that has only amounted to ethnic cleansing. Totalitarian regimes and the former dictator stole from the Iraqi citizens a culture of human rights. The current sectarian system has used this void to promote the interest of the religious sect. The majority of political parties are built around a sectarian identity, which politicians abuse, seeking revenge in the name of protecting their community and further polarizing this sectarian culture.

To make matters worse, the regional environment is currently in a state of sectarian violence and polarization that has only worsened the issue of respect for human rights. Thus, human rights as a basic principle have been undermined by religious and sectarian ideologies.

In the wake of a weak state, the importance of the clan has risen. In many regions of Iraq, tribal law has become the law of the land, which has led to yet another increase in human rights abuses.

The Sunni Uprising and 2014 Elections

The 2014 parliamentary election could signify a turning point in Iraqi history: it could either lead to real change, providing breathing room for the political process, or it could end in a bloody sectarian civil war and the ultimate division of Iraq.

Faced with uprisings among Sunnis in Anbar and other Sunni majority cities in early 2013, Maliki had the following options: maintain the status quo; military confrontation; or, accept a political deal that would call for early elections, dissolve parliament, and appoint a new interim prime minister ineligible to run in the subsequent election. The latter option would most likely have won over the moderate Sunnis who still believe in the political process as a means of solving the country’s problems.

Instead, Maliki opted to maintain the status quo, fearing the loss of power had he accepted to leave office. He is now able to influence upcoming elections through the use of state funds, political influence, and control of the military, but his enemies are growing. Rather than giving Sunnis real political concessions, Maliki is seeking to forge a new alliance with some Sunni parties that could easily be coopted. Though lacking in popular support, such an alliance would weaken his opponents and stand against the Shia Islamist factions within his party. However, signs of a new alliance between the Sadrist and Hakim groups at the local government level could pose a serious threat to Maliki’s position as the “caretaker of the Shiites,” and could even put an end to his rule.

Emergence of a moderate, secular platform

There is an apparent mood of fatigue of sectarian divisions and violence among a majority of Iraqis, both of which have been fueled rather than assuaged by political leaders from each sect. Yet still, the moderate nationalist, non-sectarian platform struggled at the polls in recent provincial elections.

There is urgent need for a new political alternative in Iraq that is cross-sectarian, uniting moderate forces among Sunnis, Shiites, and possibly Kurds. Such a party would also draw in other minorities, leftist forces, and unions. The question remains how to effectively communicate a party message that is relatable to common Iraqis and able to break through the stronghold of Shia solidarity and tribal allegiances in the South.

The key is to brand such a party as a contemporary, moderate Arab nationalist force so that it is not seen as representing a certain sect or tribe, but as a party or coalition partner for all Iraqis seeking peace and stability.

A U.S. Role?

It is clear that there is little appetite in Washington for involvement in Iraqi political affairs, and the prevailing attitude suggests that there is little that the United States can do to help. However, Washington has the ability to play a critical role, not through boots on the ground or financial assistance, but by adhering to the principles set forth in the strategic agreement: maintain Iraq’s unity and independence; fight terrorism; defend democracy; maintain Iraq’s stability; and maintain the flow of oil.

First, the U.S. must recognize that on all accounts, Maliki has become a liability rather than an asset in the implementation of the agreement’s objectives. It is currently the perception in Iraq that the U.S. supports Maliki because they have not engaged with any other parties or non-political actors.

As has been clearly indicated by the Obama administration, it is not the U.S. prerogative to meddle in internal political affairs. However, the U.S. can play a critical role adhering to the strategic agreement objectives by doing everything in its power to ensure that Iraq’s next election is free and fair. As an impartial party, the U.S. has resources at its disposal to develop a coalition of multinational election monitors to ensure that elections laws are adhered to at the national and local levels.

Much is at stake in the next elections, for if the Sunnis lose faith in the ballot box, the only foreseeable alternative is the bullet, and there are notable regional powers with an ease and interest in propagating violence. If the United States puts its full weight behind ensuring a level playing field at the polls in 2014, and a moderate, cross-sectarian force can unify and gain momentum, there is still hope that Iraq can emerge from its current environment a unified, stable state moving toward a democratic future.

Ghassan Atiyyah is the founder of the Iraq Foundation for Development and Democracy based in Baghdad and is a former visiting fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.