Secularism a Growing Force in Iraq in Advance of Election

On March 7, the Iraqi people go to the polls for their national election, a contest with so many factors it makes analysis of American elections look like elementary schoolwork. The election pits the camps of secularism, religion-guided democratic governance, and proponents of Iranian influence against one another. Blocs that are jockeying against each other will soon maneuver together to decide the next prime minister as the Iranian regime tries to manipulate and place itself in each side’s corner.

The election is preceded by a crisis that, in the words of Kenneth Pollack and Michael O’Hanlon, “is just the kind of seemingly small problem that could unravel the entire political fabric of Iraq.” Iraq's Justice and Accountability Commission, under the influence of Ahmed Chalabi and his close friend, banned over 500 candidates from running in the elections for allegedly having ties to the outlawed Baath Party. Those on the list were not given the opportunity to defend themselves. Among those listed were the Sunni defense minister and Saleh al-Mutlaq, a prominent Sunni leader who is allied with the secular Shiite and former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a strong opponent of the political bloc with which Chalabi is aligned. General Ray Odierno has attributed this move to Iranian influence, saying that Chalabi has repeatedly met with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s top man in Iraq.

The ban caused an uproar even though many Iraqis supported it. The controversy resulted in a parliamentary body being set up to allow for appeals, but very few were granted. Al-Mutlaq remains barred. This resulted in his announcement that his party would boycott the elections. Reduced Sunni turnout would undermine the legitimacy of the election and the subsequently formed government. It would result in the disenfranchisement of Sunnis, a mound of sectarian tension, and possibly violence. It would also hurt Allawi’s bloc at the polls.

Luckily, al-Mutlaq has rescinded and is calling on Sunnis to participate. “We do not want to be a reason the Sunni people lose,” he said, aware that a boycott would only guarantee that the Sunnis would lose a spot at the table. Al-Mutlaq is not pro-American and has spoken in support of insurgents in the past, but this is a move we can all applaud. It will help Allawi’s bloc, which is the most secular and opposed to Iran of those running.

The latest poll shows some good news for those hoping to check Iran’s influence. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition has a wide lead with 29.9% of the vote. Although al-Maliki does have ties to Iran, he has taken on Iranian-supported militias, such as when he authorized a bold offensive against the forces of Muqtada al-Sadr. He has also taken a very hard line on Syria. He has not been perfect and has struck deals with some of the Iranian-backed special groups, but he’s a far cry from some of his competitors.

In second place is Iyad Allawi’s al-Iraqiya bloc with 21.8%, a remarkable turnaround for the tough former prime minister. Allawi was extremely tough on Iran during his tenure and equally tough on Syria, unafraid to call them out for supporting the extremists wreaking havoc on his country. He is staunchly secular and has a history of close ties with the West. His bloc includes major Sunni figures, an important asset in helping to hold the country together.