In power for 15 years, Iraq’s Shias split ahead of crucial vote

People who once voted blindly along sectarian lines are turning their ire against the Shia-led governments.
Thursday 26/04/2018
Vehicles drive near campaign posters of candidates ahead of Iraq’s parliamentary election, in the city of Najaf, on April 20. (Reuters)
Vehicles drive near campaign posters of candidates ahead of Iraq’s parliamentary election, in the city of Najaf, on April 20. (Reuters)

BASRA/NAJAF, Iraq - United in their fight against Saddam Hussein’s oppression for decades, Iraq’s Shias have become deeply fragmented and disillusioned with their leaders after 15 years in power.

In Iraq’s Shia heartlands, people who once voted blindly along sectarian lines are turning their ire against the Shia-led governments they say failed to repair crumbling infrastructure, provide jobs or end violence.

The divisions within the community risk splitting the Shia vote in the May 12 election, which could complicate and delay the formation of a government, threaten gains against the Islamic State (ISIS) and let Iran meddle further in Iraq’s politics.

In the oil-rich southern province of Basra, 81-year-old retired teacher Mowafaq Abdul Ghani expressed disappointment with the performance of the Shia leaders since Saddam fell in 2003.

“I’ve been waiting for Saddam to fall since the 1970s. I’ve been waiting for you! Why would you do this to us?” he asked. “Look around. The streets are filthy, there are flies everywhere, potholes at every step. Twenty years ago, Basra was terrible but it was better than this.”

In the holy city of Najaf, home to Imam Ali’s shrine and Iraq’s most revered Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, there was a similar feeling of disillusionment.

At midnight April 13 when official campaigning began, hordes of party activists plastered campaign posters on every visible surface, in some cases covering pictures honouring those who died fighting ISIS.

“They took down the martyrs and replaced them with thieves,” said unemployed 29-year-old Abbas Saad.

Even Sistani seems unhappy with the performance of the politicians, issuing a fatwa implicitly calling on Shias to vote for new blood. “The tried should not be tried,” said the fatwa from Sistani, whose decrees are sacrosanct to millions.

Under the informal power-sharing arrangement in place since Saddam’s fall, the prime minister has come from the Shia majority with a Kurdish president and a Sunni speaker.

In the past, while no party has won enough seats to govern alone, there has typically been one Shia leader with enough support to shape a ruling coalition government. This time there are three Shia front-runners: Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who has promoted a more inclusive government; his overtly sectarian predecessor Nuri al-Maliki, who failed to inspire unity; and Hadi al-Amiri, a military commander close to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and seen as a war hero by many.

If no clear winner emerges, Iran could have more of a chance to act as a broker between the Shia parties and influence who becomes prime minister and ISIS could capitalise on any power vacuum and exploit Sunni feelings of marginalisation.

At a party for university graduates in Najaf, dozens of young people danced under a glittering disco ball and listened to poetry in a packed hall. At the event sponsored by Adnan al-Zurfi, a former governor running on Abadi’s Victory Alliance list, the talk was of inclusiveness.

About 60% of Iraqis are 27 or younger and many young people in urban areas say they want a secular government, underscoring the split within the Shia voter base. “I’m against voting based on sect,” said student Ali Reda.

Abadi’s list, touted by Zurfi as “cross-sectarian,” is the only one contesting the election in all of Iraq’s 18 provinces.

“The young care about unemployment, education and freedoms,” he said at a nearby cafe surrounded by young men playing billiards. “The Shia majority has a responsibility to calm the fears of other communities. We are proposing an inclusive government in which everyone is represented.”

Just an hour away from Najaf in Karbala, the holy city visited by 30 million Shia pilgrims a year, sharing power with Sunnis and Kurds is not seen as a solution.

“Iraq has a Shia majority. It is natural that it be ruled by a Shia,” said Muntazer al-Shahrestani, who runs a school for Shia clerics.

While there has been no census for a long time, US figures from 2003 put the breakdown of the Iraqi population at 48-60% Shia Arabs, 15-22% Sunni Arabs, 18% Kurds with other groups making up the rest.

Shahrestani said, while the rights of minorities should be protected, there should be a Shia government, echoing a popular opinion among religious Shias. Many campaign on that sentiment, none more than Maliki, who is widely viewed by Sunni and Kurds as sectarian and oppressive.

Maliki is also blamed by many Shias for losing one-third of Iraq to ISIS in 2014 before being replaced by Abadi but he remains popular with others who credit him with signing Saddam’s death warrant.

In Hayaniya, one of the poorest parts of Basra, Ali Khaled said he plans to vote for Amiri’s Conquest Alliance, as do many in his neighbourhood.

Khaled’s brother was killed fighting ISIS for Amiri’s Badr Organisation, an Iran-backed militia that is one of the many state-sponsored groups collectively known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) that emerged as a response to a Sistani fatwa calling on Iraqis to fight ISIS.

He receives up to $675 a month as payment for the death of his brother but he’s not thanking the government.

“The PMF follow God, they don’t have bureaucracy like the government,” Khaled said. “Hadi al-Amiri fought with us. He left his cushy post as a minister to fight for us. He eats our food. He lived with us.”

Many others, however, view Amiri, whose candidates hang photos of Iranian Supreme Leaders Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in their offices, as having a stronger allegiance to Iran than Iraq.

“Amiri is a hero but he is too close to Iran. A vote for him is one against Iraq’s sovereignty,” said Abdul Ghani.

For years, the province was a support base for Shia leaders. Now, many Basrawis are fed up.

Basra produces about 3.5 million barrels of oil per day, the majority of Iraq’s oil wealth equivalent to more than 80% of the federal budget. Many in the city say they don’t get a fair share of government revenues handed out to the 18 provinces and claim what they do get is squandered by local officials.

The city’s water is undrinkable, its roads neglected and its streets overflowing with waste. Al Ashar River, which divides the city, was once a source of prosperity for its people but now is clogged with rubbish.

Jobs are scant, as are school supplies and medical equipment, but there is no shortage of posters for Shia candidates.

At the same house in Hayaniya where Khaled was speaking, his neighbour, a soldier with an elite Interior Ministry unit, said he would not vote, even for Abadi, his commander-in-chief.

Many do plan to vote for Abadi, though more out of pragmatism than passion with some describing him as “the best of the worst.”

Wounded fighting ISIS in Mosul last year, the soldier, who requested anonymity, sipped tea sitting on the floor, his leg in a cast he was forced to pay for himself.

“When I was first injured I got visits and promises (from officials) but nothing, ultimately. I have no faith in the government or parliament,” he said.

A majority of those interviewed by Reuters in Basra said they would not vote. Two men, who declined to be named, said they planned to sell their families’ votes to the highest bidder, just to help make ends meet.

“I am hungry. I have eight votes and I want to sell them,” said one.