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Iraq’s Absent Political Opposition

As a general rule, most nations are stronger and more stable when they have a strong and viable political opposition, presenting their society with an alternative if its existing government fails to rule effectively. Societies without such opposition are characterized either by tyranny or by chaos—the two defining characteristics of Iraq’s political system both before and after the 2003 invasion. The absence of a nationalistic and organized political opposition in Iraq prior to the U.S.-led invasion deprived many Iraqis of any experience in politics, paving the way for narrowly-focused and divisive governments in the post-2003 era. Over the same time period, Iraq has witnessed the steady deterioration of its society on all levels, but continues to lack a viable and nationalistic opposition presenting a political program that can prevent Iraq from plunging into the abyss.

The Birth of Sectarianism

Much of Iraq’s current crisis can be blamed on Saddam Hussein, whose brutal and autocratic rule prior to 2003 eliminated any possibility of organized political opposition. In 1979, immediately after ascending to the presidency, Saddam purged the Ba’ath party of anyone who could conceivably challenge him for the country’s leadership, including many of his erstwhile companions who had shared his political struggle. To the extent that Iraq’s political opposition was able to survive, it was forced to either operate in foreign countries or work underground within Iraq, limiting its effectiveness and its experience with participatory politics. Moreover, the tribal and quasi-sectarian nature of Saddam’s regime created a narrow backlash, in the sense that oppositional political parties reciprocated Saddam’s narrow political and social views.

Iraq’s pre-2003 era set the stage for many of the political complications that the country suffers from today. Due to the sectarian nature of Iraq’s pre-2003 opposition, many of the country’s current oppositional parties originated as narrow sectarian movements lacking the purely nationalistic view that could appeal to all segments of Iraqi society. As a result, most, if not all, of the political parties that opposed the Baathist regime claimed to represent the “Iraqi identity,” but did not appeal to Iraq’s pluralistic identities. The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), for instance, was created in Iran during the Iran-Iraq War, and its armed faction, the Badr Brigade, fought along the Iranian forces from its foundation in 1982 until 1988. The main aim of SCIRI at its establishment was the creation of an Islamic state that resembled Iran’s theocracy—a vision which did not, and still does not, appeal to Iraq’s Sunnis, Kurds, and many of its Shia. Although it has forsaken its revolutionary aspect, SCIRI continues to be a sect-based political party in the present.

In addition, the presence of Iraq’s main opposition parties in foreign countries during the Saddam era had two negative impacts. First, these opposition parties often became tools in the hands of foreign countries; parties in Tehran, for instance, sought to steer Iraq according to Iranian interests, while those headquartered in the West tended toward sympathy with Western views. Second, the parties also became isolated from the developments occurring within Iraqi society. The Iraqi National Congress, for example, was created with the backing of the United States in 1992, and the only issue that its constituent members shared was toppling Saddam’s regime. Following Saddam, the coalition’s ideological goals varied from restoring the monarchy to embracing Islamism, and most parties had limited following within Iraq. There were also clashes within the umbrella, as the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) fought each other in 1994 and in 1996. Additionally, the grandiose political rhetoric espoused by the group soon receded after the Baathist regime was toppled, each party pursued its narrow agenda, and most of the political parties withdrew from the political umbrella.

To Participate or Not to Participate

Although the transition from dictatorship to democracy opened the door for political practice, the country’s sectarian political opposition failed to unite behind a national identity, leaving a critical absence at the heart of Iraqi politics. In Iraq’s 2005 elections, the first since Saddam’s fall from power, nearly 100 parties registered, with approximately 7000 candidates proclaiming their hopes for a democratic Iraq. However, the political arrangement by the main parties provided a ground for an informal sectarian division of politics in which the Sunnis, the Shia, and the Kurds shared the main political posts. The only form of “opposition” under this system was a violent campaign conducted by disgruntled Sunnis who rejected the new political process. A plethora of Sunni armed groups mushroomed in the post 2003 Iraq, many supported by Iraq’s neighbors in order to thwart the country’s democratic transition and undermine the United States. These groups did not have a political program that attracted members of other communities within Iraq, and most either favored Ba’athism or militant Islamism, which most Iraqis from all sects rejected. Anti-government militants espoused a narrow militant doctrine that had, in essence, two goals: remove the United States from Iraq, and completely overhaul the country’s new political system. In spite of distaste for the U.S. occupation, however, the majority of Iraqis were hopeful of a better future, and did not believe in an armed struggle forcing U.S. troops to leave Iraq.

One of these groups was the Islamic Army in Iraq, which engaged in negotiations with the United States after it became clear that Washington eventually intended to withdraw its forces. The 1920 Revolution Brigade, a second Sunni group that included many elements of the old army, refused negotiations with the United States and demanded its immediate withdrawal. Other groups, such as Al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Islamic State, had more diabolical aims, including sectarian cleansing. The actions of these groups were legitimized by several major factors: ethnic divisions, the consolidation of corrupt ruling parties, the failure of reform efforts, and, crucially, the state’s inability to prevent sectarian violence well before the emergence of the country’s most infamous terror groups.

In recent years, the festering social grievances have morphed into demonstrations by Iraq’s different social groups for better services. However, these demonstrations have not yet transformed into a powerful political opposition movement, which remains meek and nascent with no guarantees of eventual success. Each segment of the Iraqi society has protested, at various times, the country’s current conditions. Between 2012 and 2013, for instance, tens of thousands of Sunnis demonstrated against the Shia-centric policies of the then Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The Kurds have also demonstrated against their political parties over corruption and delayed salaries, while Iraqi Shiites demolished many of the offices of their corrupt political parties during the nationwide protests of October 2019. Yet a unified representation of these masses—in other words, a cross-sectarian movement built around Iraqi national identity rather than religious or ethnic solidarity—remains minuscule and brittle.

False Starts

In recent years, some have placed their hopes for change with Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose “Sadrist Movement” is predominantly-Shia but emphasizes Iraqi nationalism rather than religious Shia identity. However, the events of the past year have clearly demonstrated that al-Sadr is primarily entangled in a political struggle rather than a campaign for meaningful reform. The mercurial leader has changed his political stances several times on vital issues; although he supported the protestors during the initial phase of the 2019 demonstrations, al-Sadr reversed his position later. Similarly, after the 2021 elections, al-Sadr declared his opposition to any foreign influence, but later met the head of the Iranian Quds Force on several occasions to discuss the new government’s formation. Finally, while he refused initially to ally with any part of the Fatah Coalition, al-Sadr readjusted his approach and rejected only certain factions of the coalition. In other words, al-Sadr’s actions are consistent with those of Iraq’s other politicians. Any Iraqi hope of reform from within the political system should lie elsewhere.

The glimmer of political hope is represented by the independent voices, but the challenge can be insurmountable for these newcomers. Dozens of parliament seats were won in October 2021 by independent candidates who identified themselves with the 2019 movement. To the surprise of many analysts, the independents won forty seats and formed Imtidad,” an independent coalition. However, the coalition faced several difficulties in staying intact as different factions pulled towards different directions. Furthermore, the Imtidad leaders’ political shrewdness and strategic thinking have not yet been put to the test, and it will take several elections before they navigate the halls of power, and their political skills are honed to implement meaningful change.

As Iraq undergoes its decades of turbulence, there is an urgent need for a nationalist political force with a clear ideology and rhetoric that appeals to the needs of all Iraqis. Unfortunately, the corrupt elite within the country will stifle any political power that threatens their position. Furthermore, any political organization outside of Iraq will be subject to foreign influence and will be detached from the Iraqi society. As the status quo persists, the gap between the political elite and Iraqi society writ large can only grow.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Dr. Massaab Al-Aloosy is a Non-Resident Fellow at Gulf International Forum and a researcher focusing on Iraq, Iran, and Shia non-state armed groups. He holds a PhD from the Fletcher School-Tufts University and is the author of The Changing Ideology of Hezbollah, Palgrave 2020.

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