Are Iraqis Ready To Throw Off Sectarian Ties?

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With parliamentary elections slated for January, religious Shiite parties still dominate the political scene in Iraq. But with local politics in flux, Iraqis are beginning to question how far they want to follow these religious Shiite leaders, who are flexing their muscles after decades of repression by Saddam Hussein's regime. Liberal voices, though in the minority, say Iraqis' preference for a relatively secular society may yet come to the fore.


And in America's other war in Iraq, parliamentary elections are set for January. Shiite religious parties are the favorites, but in a diverse country a fair number of Iraqis are uncomfortable with this prospect. And some are hoping a relatively secular society may yet return to Iraq. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Baghdad.

PETER KENYON: The most urgent question in Iraqi politics right now is where Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will wind up in January. As a member of the National Iraqi Alliance, the large pro-Iranian Shiite bloc, as an independent heading his state of law party, or leading a new coalition that may combine Sunni, Shiite, and independent elements. The new religious Shiite alliance is refusing to guarantee Maliki a return to the Prime Minister's post if they win a majority in the coming elections.

Meanwhile, Sunni factions are talking about joining forces with Maliki. Most notably, Sheikh Ahmed Abu Risha's Awakening Conference, Sunni militants who turned against al-Qaida. Such an alliance would bring to the floor two major political questions in Iraq. First, will Iraqi nationalism prove stronger than the historical ties between Iraq's long-oppressed Shiite majority and neighboring Iran. And second, will Iraq, long seen as a relatively secular Arab society, join the movement toward greater Islamic influence over politics that's being felt across the Middle East.

Sheikh Mohammed al-Hamidawi is a lawmaker from the Shiite Fadhila Party, part of the National Iraqi Alliance. He says Islamist parties are finally free to prove that they can lead Iraq down the proper path and he believes the Shiite leaders of Najaf, such as the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani have done just that.

Sheikh MOHAMMED AL-HAMIDAWI (Lawmaker): (Through Translator) Believe me, without the leadership of Najaf, without its preaching for people to co-exist and to deal with others in a brotherly way, without this you would have seen Iraq today sinking into sectarian warfare. It would have been worse than Lebanon, worse than Somalia.

KENYON: Hamidawi says despite the setbacks of ongoing violence and sectarian enmity, Iraq's religious parties are just beginning to spread their wings.

Sheikh AL-HAMIDAWI: (Through Translator) I believe that history is going to write with pride that the Islamists in Iraq managed to restore the Iraqi state after it was turned by the American invasion into merely desert.

KENYON: Such sentiments are understandable coming from long repressed Shiite politicians. But on the streets of Baghdad, they evoke a decidedly mixed reaction.

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KENYON: At a central Baghdad auto shop, 50-year-old Carma Kenick Salla Abdul Kareen(ph) blames most of Iraq's problems on the occupying Americans. So he'll stick with the religious parties for now, in his case the Shiites.

Mr. CARMA KENICK SALLA ABDUL KAREEN (Mechanic): (Through Translator) Of course the religious ones. I'm committed to my religion until I die. Follow religion, follow the Koran, that's my path.

KENYON: But the views of Sunni Motmaumad al-Sahad(ph) were more typical in this unscientific sampling. He says if he had to chose, he'd vote for secular parties because religious politicians in his view are hypocrites using Islam as a cover.

Mr. MOTMAUMAD AL-SAHAD (Sunni): (Through Translator) They are Sheikhs and holy men, but everyone has got a gang working for himself. Don't tell me that this party or that sect is religious. Everyone is in it to grab for themselves.

KENYON: Safia al-Suhail, a liberal independent member of Parliament and a leading women's rights activist is confident that if given a chance, Iraqis will reassert their preference for a secular government, especially if it's dedicated to improving their living standards.

Ms. SAFIA AL-SUHAIL (Liberal, Parliament member): The message given by our people for the last six years that no more acceptance to those religious politician who are really putting more pressure on day to day life and our society would never accept to have an Islamic state in Iraq.

KENYON: On the other hand, analysts say many Iraqis Shiites feel that their leaders haven't been given a fair chance to govern yet. And they'll be watching closely for signs that Iraqis are ready to throw off their sectarian ties when they step into the voting booth in January.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Baghdad.

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