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Change We Can Believe In?
Major Religious Group Allies With Iraq’s Communists, For Election Shake-Up

Mustafa Habib
A surprising electoral alliance between one of Iraq’s most controversial religious leaders, Muqtada al-Sadr, and local Communists has serious political and historical ramifications.
8.02.2018  |  Baghdad
Cleric Muqtada al-Sadr votes in the last Iraqi elections.
Cleric Muqtada al-Sadr votes in the last Iraqi elections.

Last week Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr released a somewhat surprising statement, explaining why he had allied himself with the Iraqi Communist party and other secular and civil society groups, to compete in upcoming federal elections.

“If we enter into an alliance with the Shiites, people say it is a sectarian alliance. And if we enter an alliance with the Sunnis, people accuse me of Wahhabism [an extreme form of Sunni Islam], Baathism [support for Saddam Hussein’s former Sunni-majority party, now outlawed in Iraq] or loyalty to Saudi Arabia,” read a statement issued by al-Sadr last Friday. “If we enter into an alliance with the civil society stream, they say we are Communists. When we enter into an alliance with parties close to Iran, they accuse us of being Iranian loyalists and when we get closer to Arab parties, they say we are secret agents for them. I will participate in elections for the sake of Iraq, to support moderate people and to expel extremists, to achieve reform and to end corruption and nepotism,” al-Sadr declared in the rousing statement.  

The electoral alliance between our party and the Sadrist movement did not happen overnight. It came after a joint struggle against corruption on the streets.

To compete in the elections, slated for May, the powerful young cleric, whose opinion can sway tens of thousands of Iraqis, formed a new political party called Istiqama, or the Integrity party. Then al-Sadr joined that with a number of left wing and more liberal parties and formed a whole new alliance for the elections named Marching Toward Reform. This is the slogan that al-Sadr adopted three years ago when he and the left-wing parties first came together in anti-government and anti-corruption demonstrations in 2015.

In doing this, al-Sadr confirms his rejection of the Shiite Muslim bloc to which he was once so closely connected. And of course, he has come under fire for this.

The Marching Toward Reform alliance is composed of six parties, the most prominent of which are al-Sadr’s new Integrity party, the Iraqi Communist party and the Iraqi Republican party, an Iraqi nationalist group led by a Sunni Muslim politician, Saad Assim al-Janabi.

“The alliance’s aim is to change the balance of power and to weaken sectarian parties and corrupt people, as well as mobilize that portion of the population that is interested in changing the status quo,” Jassim al-Halfi, a senior member of the Communist party told NIQASH. These goals are what unites the alliance.  “The alliance is trying to fulfil the demands of demonstrators from three years ago and to defend the interests of the Iraqi people,” he added. “The demonstrators have not been adequately represented in government and nobody has paid them enough attention.”

Al-Halfi is talking about anti-government and anti-corruption protests that happened in Baghdad in the middle of 2015. They were organized mainly by the Communist party and other civil society groups and drew hundreds of locals. The mood also reached Iraq’s provinces, and saw smaller demonstrations there too. The protests used to happen on Friday, the first day of the Iraqi weekend, and they went on for several months.

However, after some time, the numbers attending began to decrease. That is until al-Sadr got more involved in April 2016, calling for his supporters to take to the streets in protest as well. At one stage the protestors were able to break into the heavily defended Green Zone in Baghdad, home to the parliament buildings and a number of foreign embassies. It was a day that Iraqis will never forget.

Since those protests there have been ongoing signals that a strange and somewhat unexpected alliance was growing between the movement headed by al-Sadr, which has a strong religious foundation, and the secular movement.  


Al-Sadr with Communist party member, Jassim al-Halfi, and protest organiser, Ahmed Abdul-Hussein .

 “The electoral alliance between our party and the Sadrist movement did not happen overnight,” Taha Rashid, a member of the Iraqi Communist party, confirmed. “It came after a joint struggle against corruption on the streets, and it came in order to achieve real reform and to build a civil state.”

There are other points upon which al-Sadr and his new allies agree too. For example, neither of them are fans of the former prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. Al-Sadr has often described al-Maliki, whose politics became increasingly sectarian and self-serving while he was in power, as a dictator. The committees that organized the demonstrations also dislike al-Maliki because in February of 2011, the former prime minister used the Iraqi military to attack and arrest unarmed demonstrators.

However, the new Marching Toward Reform alliance also has some drawbacks. One of these is that parties and political groups that had previously supported the Communist party in elections have said they will not go into partnership with the Sadrists. Instead they are competing in elections independently. Among them are the politicians, Faeq al-Sheikh Ali and Shuruq al-Abaji, both of whom campaign on secular platforms. Both believe it is impossible for a religious group like the Sadrist movement and a secular group to work together.

It is also very likely that the Sadrist movement will lose some of the voters that previously supported them so staunchly, and for the same reasons as the secular politicians are opposed.

The Sadrist movement has declared its preparedness to ally itself with any party that adopts these goals, no matter what its ideological background, and as long as the ultimate goal is to build up the Iraqi state.

Indeed, the alliance between al-Sadr and the Communists is not only an interesting political opportunity for Iraqi voters, it is also an historic one. In the past Iraqi clerics and religious government leaders have been steadfast against local Communists, saying they are non-believers who should be defeated.

In 1961, shortly after the local Communist party supported the overthrow of the Iraqi monarchy, one of the most senior Shiite Muslim clerics, Mohsen al-Hakim - also grandfather of one of the most prominent clerics currently in Iraqi politics, Ammar al-Hakim - issued a religious decree saying that anyone who joined the Communist party was blaspheming. It was only when the nationalist Baath party, eventually led by Saddam Hussein, came to power that the conflict between the Communists and the Islamists died down.

As yet it is obviously unclear how many votes the Marching Toward reform alliance might get in May. But no matter what happens it could have a fairly big impact on the larger Shiite Muslim bloc in Iraq’s parliament. This group, which includes some of the country’s largest parties and the ruling State of Law bloc to which both the current and previous prime minister belong, has won power in the past three elections. 

In the last elections Shiite Muslim parties gained 178 out of 328 seats, of which 34 belonged to the Sadrists’ party. If the Sadrists get anywhere near that number of seats again, the Shiite Muslim bloc may well lose a tight race. As al-Sadr has moved closer to secular groups, one of the other big blocs led by another former prime minister, Ayad Allawi, has looked on with interest. Allawi is a Shiite Muslim but has many Sunni Muslim parties in his alliance and is generally secular in outlook; Allawi has praised the stand taken by al-Sadr and has not ruled out some kind of cooperation with his group after the votes are counted.

“We decided to participate in upcoming elections to achieve our goal of ending sectarian quotas [in politics] and to allow technocrats to take up senior jobs,” Jafar al-Musawi, a senior member of the Sadrist movement, told NIQASH. Having experienced technocrats in senior roles is seen by many as something Iraqi desperately needs because, with any luck they won’t be hired for nepotistic or corrupt reasons and will be able to get the job done. “The Sadrist movement has declared its preparedness to ally itself with any party that adopts these goals, no matter what its ideological background, and as long as the ultimate goal is to build up the Iraqi state and to end the corruption that is destroying this country.”

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