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 UNLIKELY ALLIANCE ARISES TO FIGHT IRAQI CORRUPTION AND SECTARIAN
STRIFE  
[https://portside.org/2018-03-03/unlikely-alliance-arises-fight-iraqi-corruption-and-sectarian-strife]


 

 Alex MacDonald 
 February 28, 2018
Middle East Eye
[http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/sadr-communists-1162425769] 

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 _ As Iraq prepares for its first post-Islamic State elections, the
Iraqi Communist Party has formed a singular alliance with the movement
led by activist Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. And it is a move that is
not as bizarre as it may first appear. _ 

 AP Photo, Members and supporters of the Iraqi Community Party, once
the largest in the Middle East, march to celebrate May Day in central
Baghdad. 

 

It is perhaps the most unlikely of political alliances, even for a
country where electoral rules encourage strange bedfellows. As Iraq
prepares for its first post-Islamic State elections, the Communists
have thrown their lot in with the Shia conservatives of Muqtada
al-Sadr and the result, they promise, is not as bizarre as it may
first appear.

Although the pairing of religious conservatives in Sadr's party and
the ultra-secular Marxist-Leninists of the Iraqi Communist Party has
raised many eyebrows - not least internally - both argue they
ultimately draw support from the same social base: the poor, working
class and those angry at the rampant cronyism and mismanagement which
have seen the country ranked
[https://www.transparency.org/news/feature/corruption_perceptions_index_2017#table] 11th
most corrupt in the world by Transparency International.

Both maintain headquarters in the eponymous Sadr City, the highly
impoverished and frequently attacked district of Baghdad. And both say
they are fighting - politically speaking - for the same future for its
three million residents, and the millions of Iraqs beyond.

Salam Ali, a member of the Iraqi Communist Party's central committee,
told Middle East Eye that the coalition, named the "Sairoun Alliance",
could have a major effect on the nature of Iraqi politics.

"It is a very important development politically in Iraq and, if
successful - and that’s a big if because the challenge is great - it
will have an impact on politics in the region as well," he explained,
speaking to MEE in London.

"This coalition is national, civil in character, it opens the
possibilities of a change in the political scene"_- Salam Ali, Iraqi
Communist Party member_

The alliance has grown out of on-going street protests - largely
beginning in August 2015 - targeting systemic corruption and
advocating political reform. These have seen secular activists, under
the banner of the Civic Movement
[https://www.facebook.com/Iraq2016madani/], gathering alongside
largely Shia Islamists in common cause.

Despite the surprise at the announcement of the coalition, after the
communists broke from the secular Civil Democratic Alliance
[https://www.alsumaria.tv/Iraq-Elections-2014/Coalitions/3/%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AA%D8%AD%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%81-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85%D8%AF%D9%86%D9%8A-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AF%D9%8A%D9%85%D9%82%D8%B1%D8%A7%D8%B7%D9%8A] coalition,
Ali said the relationship had been building since 2015.

"It’s not a sudden change," he said. "It is built on cooperation,
coordination between this broad civil democratic movement, the protest
movement and the Sadrist movement."

He said that it created "a greater climate for open campaigning and to
be able to reach out to areas in Baghdad, in the provinces as well,
where our party and the other civil democratic forces could not
campaign as effectively as it is possible now."

"Now there are examples of coordination with Sadrists in these areas,
with young people - now they can coordinate on issues, local issues,
like services, the provinicial council, elements of corruption here
and there," he said.

In addition, the Communist Party has long championed itself as the one
genuinely non-sectarian party in Iraq. This has made Sadr's recent
public attempts to cross the sectarian divide and support a unified
Iraqi identity another point of common interest.

"This is fundamental - he has distanced himself from sectarian
politics," said Salam. "This is the essence of our policy on the
protest movement, on its demands, on its electoral strategy as well."

He said that it was possible that, if successful in elections, a "new
political map of coalitions" could be formed in Iraq, with further
alliances between left-wing forces and what he described as
"enlightened, moderate Islamists".

Sadr himself hit back at criticism of the alliance in January,
stressing that he was committed to reform and calling for technocrats
in place of corrupt ministry officials.

“If we enter into an alliance with the Shia, people say it is a
sectarian alliance," he said. "And if we enter an alliance with the
Sunnis, people accuse me of Wahhabism, Baathism or loyalty to Saudi
Arabia. If we enter into an alliance with the civil society stream,
they say we are Communists.

"When we enter into an alliance with parties close to Iran, they
accuse us of being Iranian loyalists and when we get closer to Arab
parties, they say we are secret agents for them."

"I will participate in elections for the sake of Iraq, to support
moderate people and to expel extremists, to achieve reform and to end
corruption and nepotism."

Ally with the Devil

At one point the Iraqi Communist party was the largest of its kind in
the Middle East and in the 1950s and 1960s exerted a lot of influence
on Iraqi politics.

However, the coming to power of the Baath Party, and later Saddam
Hussein as president in 1979, led to the repression of the party,
often with backing from the CIA.

Salam himself spent the years between 1967 and 2003 in exile in the
UK, after coming to the country on a scholarship.

Following Saddam's removal after the 2003 invasion (opposed by the
Communist Party), the party enjoyed something of a resurgence and
although it never regained the influence it previously enjoyed, it is
still a presence in Iraqi politics in a way that other Middle Eastern
communist parties could only envy.

Despite this, the party still maintains a level of discretion - the
internal party structure and membership is secretive. The longstanding
perception of communists as atheists and their public criticism of
well-connected business interests has made life very difficult in a
highly religious and highly corrupt landscape, and the party has had
to endure
[http://english.alarabiya.net/en/views/news/middle-east/2017/04/15/An-attack-on-the-Iraqi-Communist-Party.html] repeated
attacks on its offices and the murder
[https://www.theguardian.com/news/2005/jan/20/guardianobituaries.iraq] of
its leaders.

Last year, seven anti-corruption activists with the Civic Movement (a
number Communist party members) were kidnapped
[http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/seven-anti-corruption-activists-kidnapped-baghdad-1358680893] by
unknown gunmen. Although the group were later released, the culprits
were never found - though one activist told MEE there were "many
corrupted powerful men who could be happy to see them out of the
political scene".

Members of the Sairoun Alliance have also faced threats and
intimidation - on Sunday, Iraqi media reported that Abbas Adel Khader,
a lecturer at the Faculty of Management and Economics at Muthanna
University and parliamentary candidate for the coalition, was shot at
by [https://www.facebook.com/tvbaghdad/posts/1993626470666057] a
gunmen, who demanded that he withdraw his candidacy.

While few current Sadrists would publicly disagree with Sadr himself,
former supporters of the Sadrist movement have been critical.

Bahaa al-Araji, a former energy minister whom Sadr forced to resign
[https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-mideast-crisis-iraq-reform/iraqi-deputy-pm-resigns-faces-corruption-investigation-idUKKCN0QF25Z20150810] over
corruption allegations, slammed the alliance, rhetorically asking
[https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8bg4OyLDEDE] on Iraqi TV in January
how a party whose slogan was “Workers of the World Unite” could
join with a party whose message should be to "send blessings upon the
Prophet?"

"Today everyone who has the desire and the means to become prime
minister is prepared to ally themselves even with the devil in order
to gain the votes of the Iraqi people," he said.

Iran opposition

The alliance also appears to have upset senior figures outside Iraq,
including Iran, which has long had a tense relationship with Sadr, who
resents Iran's overweaning influence in Iraq.

Speaking at an event alongside former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki -
arguably the fiercest rival of Sadr - Ali Velayati, chief advisor to
Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, warned
[http://english.alarabiya.net/en/views/news/middle-east/2018/02/22/Velayati-s-controversial-remarks-Diplomatic-lapse-or-blatant-interventionism-.html] that
“the Islamic awakening will not allow the return of communists and
liberals to power.”

The intervention was condemned as interference in Iraq's domestic
politics.

"Iraq is bigger than you! Iraq is not your state!" wrote
[https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10214202869441062&set=a.1541046961486.2076422.1094305812&type=3] Jassim
al-Helfi, another Communist Party central committee member.

He also criticised Maliki, who has long been seen as close to Iran,
for not speaking out against Velayati's comments.

"It is a legacy of the Iraqi officials, who sat humbly on the speech
of Ali Velayati, violating the constitution, attacking political and
intellectual pluralism by interfering in Iraq's internal
affairs.Without any of them uttering one word of objection!"

The build-up to the elections has already been hit by controversy.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, riding high after the defeat of
the Islamic State group in Mosul, had been seen by many as the best
hope of rooting out corruption and breaking the stranglehold of
sectarianism in Iraqi politics.

It was a shock therefore when he announced on 14 January that he would
be joining an electoral pact with the Victory Alliance, which consists
of parties and politicians affiliated to the Hashd al-Shaabi, or
Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs), largely Iran-backed groups who have
been accused of carrying out sectarian reprisals against Sunnis.

Sadr, who has repeatedly called for the PMUs to be disbanded,
condemned the move as "abhorrent and sectarian" and within 24 hours
the alliance had collapsed.

But the controversy dampened the belief that Abadi might move to
challenge the controversial "sectarian quotas" system which has been
one of the main demands of reformists in Iraq.

Under the current system, installed by the US following the 2003
invasion, ministers are appointed to different ministries on the basis
of ethnicity and sect, in a fashion similar to Lebanon.

Although this system was never written into the Iraqi constitution, it
has remained in place and has angered those who claim appointments
should be overseen by the prime minister. But abolishing the system
will prove difficult without enraging the highly influential political
actors who currently benefit from the system.

"There were hopes, especially when [Abadi] announced this list of
political reforms in September 2016, that he would be able to do
something - but Abadi’s problem is his fluctuation and
vacillation and indecision on the one hand, and the fact that he
lacks a power base," said Ali.

"Unlike Maliki, who managed after eight years in power to really
build up his power base in the state, in the security forces, in the
ministries."

A 'big political battle'

No matter how assertive the communists and their allies may be, there
are few who doubt that Sadr will continue to dominate the electoral
alliance.

"There are reasons to be skeptical this will work out," said Kirk
Sowell, publisher of the biweekly newsletter Inside Iraqi Politics.

"The secularists were never able to bring out large crowds without the
Sadrists, and so they may be viewed as window dressing."

He also pointed out that even at their strongest, the Sadrists still
had a hill to climb when it came to electoral success.

"We'll see, but remember that the Sadrist lists got 34 seats in 2014.
So unless their alliance with the secularists brings 40-50 seats, this
shouldn't be viewed as a big deal," he explained to MEE.

Iraq is still reeling from the defeat of IS and with about
[http://www.un.org/News/dh/infocus/iraq/election-fact-sht.htm] two
million internally displaced people still to return to their homes,
there are fears that the election could still be delayed or carried
out in a less-than-representative fashion. There have even
been reports
[https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/news/2018/1/7/iraq-forcibly-returning-displaced-civilians-to-volatile-areas] of
refugees being forcibly returned in order to ensure the elections take
place on time.

Salam Ali said the coming months would be a "big political battle" but
expressed optimism.

"This coalition is national, civil in character, it opens the
possibilities of a change in the political scene in favour of reform
of the system, it brings in a new dynamic in the political process and
hopefully will give a boost to the protest movement as well," he said.

"And with this from above and below, as they say, this might - might -
hopefully open up space for change."

[_Alex MacDonald has been a long term surveyor of the politics of the
Middle East, Asia and the wider Muslim world and has reported from
Iraq, Turkey, Qatar and Bosnia.__He can be reached via Twitter at
@alexjaymac [https://twitter.com/AlexJayMac]._]

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