Iraqi clerics losing trust of the public
BAGHDAD - After years marred with failures and setbacks, public anger is mounting against prominent religious parties that have ruled Iraq since 2003.
Desperate Iraqis are losing faith in powerful Shia Muslim parties, partly because the parties failed to bring stability, prosperity and progress to the war-ravaged country. Instead, the system has produced large pockets of poverty, bloody sectarian strife, street robberies and kidnappings in broad-daylight and, above all, widespread political chaos in which politicians count on foreign support to stay in power.
Criticism is openly directed at senior clerics who were, until recently, considered untouchable.
“Iraq’s clerics must be stripped of their powers and be brought to justice for the crimes they committed against Iraq and Iraqis,” said Musab al-Taei, 22, a university student of international politics.
Taei said some cabinet ministers affiliated with the clerics through personal contact or party affiliation “are corrupt”.
“Those ministers specifically and the clerics supporting them should be put on trial and the money they stole from the treasury must be retrieved so that they would be a lesson to others in the future,” he said.
“Enough is enough,” he shouted, saying that religious parties in Iraq must be dissolved.
Islamist parties have dominated Iraqi politics since the overthrow of dictator Saddam Hussein following the 2003 US-led invasion.
At first, both Shia and Sunni religious parties enjoyed strong support. Leaders of the parties claimed they had ideal solutions for the country’s problems; yet, the experience was bitter.
The country has been plagued with widespread corruption, mismanagement, poverty and a costly war against Islamic State (ISIS) militants, who seized about one-third of the country during a stunning blitz in 2014.
The retreat of Islamic parties allowed for the resurrection of secular movements that have been leading protests for more than a year, demanding corrupt cabinet ministers linked to Islamic religious parties be replaced with independent technocrats.
The secular protesters, joined by larger numbers of supporters of radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, almost succeeded in forcing Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to end the sectarian power-sharing formula.
At the last minute, however, Abadi bowed to pressure from religious parties, which insisted on bringing their own technocrat candidates. As a result, angry crowds stormed the fortified Green Zone, which houses the parliament building and other important government offices in late April.
That prompted lawmakers and senior officials and their families to flee the area. No groups loyal to the ruling religious parties showed up to protect their leaders, who have had to rely on US and Iranian support to maintain power.
Abadi, from the Shia Islamic Dawa Party, has survived a wave of criticism of his inaction and demands to replace him after strong Iranian and US interference in his favour.
Experts in Baghdad say that both main players — Tehran and Washington — do not want dramatic or sudden changes in Iraq as the US elections are approaching and the war against ISIS is entering a delicate stage.
“All the parties participating in the government are still in power because Iran and US want this, even if it is against the will of the Iraqi people,” Baghdad resident Salam Qassim said. “We’re fed up.”
The growing influence of secular movements alarmed religious parties. The head of Dawa party, former prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, warned that secular movements are taking advantage of public resentment to target “the Islamist project (in Iraq) and Islam, as a religion”.
“The secularists are not after reforms. They are saying that Islamists must leave their government positions and go to their mosques,” added Maliki during a party meeting at the height of anti-corruption protests. Many Iraqis blame Maliki, who served two terms as prime minister, for most of the country’s current problems.
“During the past 13 years, religious parties achieved one success, which is stealing public funds and igniting sectarian hatred among Iraqi people,” said Iraqi secular activist Ali Sadoun.
Sunni lawmaker Hamid al-Mutlaq said ruling Islamic parties and their leaders lacked any vision to build a strong state.
“Instead, they had a clear vision and a good plan to make their personal ambitions a top priority at the expense of the nation and people,” Mutlaq said.
A sign of the public resentment is the unprecedented vocal criticism directed against senior Shia clerics who head some of the religious parties.
For the past several months, protesters in Iraqi cities shouted “in the name of religion, the thieves stole from us”, in an apparent reference to the leaders of religious groups. Local television presenters openly lashed out at senior Shia clerics, who were until recently considered above criticism, and linked them to corruption.
“Today, Iraqi people are aware that these sectarian parties brought only disaster to them. Thus, such groups which use Islam for political purposes have no future in this country,” said Sadoun.