Sunday, January 09, 2005

Campaigning in Iraq Has Worsened Ethnic, Religious Tensions

How bad is the Iraq situation? So bad that even our dream scenario -- the one that our government prays for but is unlikely to get -- sucks:

Asking someone whether he or she is Shiite, Sunni or Kurd was once taboo in Iraq. Iraq was one country, bound through wars and dictatorship, not a nation of divided sects or ethnic groups, came the standard answer.

But that national identity has been breaking down in the parliamentary election campaign. In the absence of political ideologies or competing policy agendas, the nation's newly formed political parties are increasingly depending on religious and ethnic labels to help voters distinguish among them.

While the appeals help build party support for the Jan. 30 elections, they contribute to a growing sectarianism.

Shiite Muslim Arabs account for roughly 60 percent of Iraq's population. Sunni Muslim Arabs are about 20 percent, and the ethnic Kurds, who are also Sunni Muslim, are another 20 percent, mainly in the north of the country.

On the campaign posters plastered on thick concrete blast walls around Baghdad, only one name and face appears regularly: Grand Ayatollah Ali al Husseini al Sistani, the leading Shiite cleric, who isn't a candidate. Sistani appears on campaign signs for the major Shiite party, the United Iraqi Alliance. Some signs have Sistani and a verse from the Quran. Others have him above a campaign slogan.

"With your voice, we will build Iraq," reads one. "No to dictatorship, Yes to the coalition," reads another.

None of the signs spell out what the party would do if it won.

Political parties are widely distrusted in Iraq. During Saddam Hussein's reign, only one party could operate freely, the Baath Party. And party politics usually meant courting favors for party members.

Indeed, the word "party" has such negative connotations that of the 111 political parties that will appear on the ballot, only 19 use the word "party" in their names. The rest call themselves coalitions, gatherings, assemblies and the like.

Political parties "are going to the religious leaders to gain the people's respect," said Ahmed al Ruwaee, an economics professor at al Mustansiriya University in Baghdad who's followed the election. "It's because the parties are not confident in their base."

In the process, it creates sectarianism, al Ruwaee said. Instead of campaigning on their plans for the country, they're leaning on the citizens' loyalty to their religious leaders.


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