July 20, 2004
Summary: This article explores the religious, ethnic and political
divisions which exist in Iraq, and how proportional representation will address
this complex situation.
A Peaceful Alternative for Iraq
By Jonathan Steele
July 20, 2004
While the latest damning reports on intelligence provoke new argument in
Britain and the US on whether the war made their countries and the world safer,
here in Iraq the debate is different.
Iraqis are not focused on whether things would be better had the invasion not
happened. What they want to know is how and when the manifestly unsafe world
they face every day -- from kidnappings to assassinations and car bombs -- is
going to change. They also constantly argue whether the presence of foreign
forces makes it better or worse.
To seek an answer from a rarely reported Baghdad source, I went this week to
the northern suburb of Kadhimiya. Off a lane where market traders push rickety
handcarts toward the bazaar, steps lead into the courtyard of a Shia religious
Remove your shoes, and you are ushered into a mercifully cool room with deep
carpets and even deeper armchairs. Sheikh Jawad al-Khalisi and four guests rise
in friendly greeting. While many Iraqi clerics exude a sanctimonious, mildly
impatient air with foreigners despite their elaborate expressions of welcome,
Khalisi has a look of genuine attentiveness. He listens and discusses, rather
than just declaiming.
His grandfather was a distinguished ayatollah who led the Shia opposition to
Britain's occupation 80 years ago. His father was a learned imam. He himself
spent 23 years in exile in Iran and Syria, returning when former president
Saddam Hussein was gone. Now he is general secretary of a new movement that
calls for an end to the occupation by peaceful means.
The media focus on violence and the generally positive foreign coverage of
the efforts of Prime Minister Iayad Allawi's new government "to defeat the
insurgency" have created a false impression -- that the government's
opponents use only force, and that those who support peace support the
government, and therefore the occupation.
Khalisi's movement gives the lie to that. Set up a few weeks ago, the
National Foundation Congress brought about 450 Iraqis together at a Baghdad
hotel. They included Nasserites, leftists and Baathists from the era before
Saddam turned the party into a personal fiefdom, as well as Kurds, Christians,
representatives of the powerful Sunni movement the Islamic Clerics' Association,
which has close links with Falluja and other strongly anti-American cities, and
Khalisi's own Shia friends and colleagues.
The movement picked a secretariat of 25, which meets twice a week. It has
decided not to take part in the government-supported national conference, which
is due to convene this month as part of the US program to set up a surrogate
"We see no benefit in institutions designed to implement American
plans," says the sheikh. "If the conference were to set a timetable
for a US troop pullout, it would be worth it -- but in the context of the
occupation, the conference is powerless and we don't want to disappoint our
supporters. We will, however, take part in the elections in January."
The congress does not reject armed resistance, saying it is any people's
"national right," but it prefers peaceful politics. It supports the
restoration of the Iraqi army, criticizes the formation of new militias such as
those of the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, and wants the old militias
disbanded. It is also worried by Allawi's draconian new powers.
"Iraqis are looking for security and can be seduced by hope. Extreme
dictatorships are always formed in a context when nations seek stability. It
happened when the shah took power in Iran, with Ataturk in Turkey, and Saddam
Hussein here," Khalisi said.
Wamidh Nadhmi, a UK-trained political scientist at Baghdad University and a
veteran Arab nationalist, is the congress spokesman.
Its importance for him, as a lifelong secularist, is its bridge across Iraq's
"National unity cannot grow in a country that emphasizes sectarian
divisions or expects ethnic strife," he told me in the comfortable study of
his house across the Tigris from Kadhimiya.
"There has to be reconciliation between Sunnis and Shias. We're not
interested in religion as such, but we feel that by bridging the gaps, the
ground will be better prepared for a national struggle," he said.
The real division in Iraq, he says, is not between Arab and Kurd, Sunni and
Shia, or secular and religious, but between "the pro-occupation camp and
the anti-occupation camp." In his view, "the pro-occupation people are
either completely affiliated with the US and Britain, in effect puppets, or they
saw no way to overthrow Saddam without occupation. Let's agree not to indulge in
slander but discuss the issue openly. Unfortunately, the pro-occupation people
tend not to distinguish between resistance and terrorism, or between
anti-occupation civil society and those who use violence. They call us all
Saddam remnants, reactionaries, revenge-seekers, mercenaries, misguided or
The congress is eager for the January elections. Under the system of
proportional representation worked out by the UN, every list should have a
chance. It needs only a declaration by 500 supporters to get on the ballot. Iraq
will be treated as a single constituency, so that every 27,000 votes will
produce one seat in the 275-seat national assembly.
The battle lines are becoming clearer. In Sunni districts, the Iraqi Islamic
Party (banned under Saddam) has a virtual monopoly of organization. Shia parties
say they will not even open offices there.
Among the Shias, where several groups operate, the current trend is to
produce a single list, according to Adil al-Adib, a senior member of Dawa, the
oldest and, according to opinion polls, most popular party.
Rather than competing, each party prefers to get as many Shias into the
assembly as possible. Calling itself the Shia Family, "the list will
include Dawa, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, candidates
supporting Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and maybe people with Moqtada al-Sadr,"
Abib said. It will provide a comeback for the Pentagon favorite Ahmad Chalabi,
who has been building links with Shia clergy.
"He is an enthusiastic defender of Shia rights. He'll be on the
list," Adib said.
There are major fault lines. Dawa and SCIRI are in the current government,
which has no timetable for US withdrawal.
Sistani and al-Sadr are critical. The Iraqi Islamic Party is also in
government, but strongly linked to Sunni clerics who oppose the US presence.
By making an early end to the occupation the top electoral issue, Khalisi's
pan-Iraqi group hopes to be the catalyst. It deserves more publicity and