The Metamorphosis of Iraq’s Islamist parties

An Iraqi woman walks in front of a security post adorned with Dawa party posters in Basra

America’s democratic experiment in Iraq 14 years ago lifted a lid that welcomed a flood of Islamist par­ties and militias back to the country.
Islamist factions have steered away from democracy. Even with a few pushes from the US and Iraq’s neighbours, democracy does not appear to be a short ride away. The potholes that litter the road ahead must first be repaired.
The “broad-based representa­tive and democratic government” that former US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad promised Iraq’s opposition never emerged. Islam­ist factions instead rained down on the new Iraq, which is ready­ing for a shakeup as elections draw near.
Born under the skies of the US’s “creative chaos” — to borrow a term from former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice — these self-styled Islamists are shedding their old skin in search of a secu­lar look. Having abused the av­enues of growth occupying forces opened up, these groups can no longer rely solely on religion to secure votes.
At the time of their promotion, few attempts were made to blunt their ideology or violent tactics, nor was there a threshold for how many political parties could exist. The US actively sponsored the growth of small parties, whose rapid multiplication ensured that power remained fragmented and without a centre.
It is not entirely clear why a country with a population of 37 million requires 105 political parties, especially because many of the petty disputes they are embroiled in render the political system impotent.
Public attitudes towards the Islamist political class are also no longer as positive as they once were. The happiness felt during the opening of Iraq’s single party system to a gamut of actors with blank resumes has been lost.
Parties are no longer cohesive and recently they have begun to fray. Their exploitation of faith and associated religious symbols has left them with little purchas­ing power, as the slogans and demands for secular rule at recent political protests show.
One of the strongest parties from the National Iraqi Alliance that has experienced this shift is the Dawa party, which has under­gone a three-way split. The myth of eradicating Sunni rule touted by pro-interventionist outlets may have earned them public support, but naked collaboration with occupant forces, Tehran and now Riyadh, has cost them all that they procured.
Defections are becoming a common feature in this climate of political churning. In July, a new political force, The National Wisdom Movement, emerged. It was founded by former Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) leader Ammar al-Hakim after he split from the party his family had been long devoted to. Hakim’s promises of fair elections and a move away from sectarian polar­ity read as a desperate attempt to expand his support base and claim distance from Iran.
Undressing this strategy, we see Islamist groups dropping their religious rhetoric to promote themselves as the new leaders of the civil state they are promising.
On the Sadrist camp, we see populist leader Muqtada al-Sadr disassociating himself from rogue factions housed by the state-backed Popular Mobili­sation Forces (PMF), as other known political names such as Ayad Allawi shuffle to the front row. Leftists, on the other hand, are busy discussing the return of Iraq’s Ba’ath Party, as militia factions grope for power beyond Iraqi borders where the fog of war grows thicker.
Moves to rename, redress or refashion Islamists do not undo years of sectarian menacing and fragmenting practices. Cloaks can be abandoned and headgear can be removed, but the collision course on which Iraq is headed will require more than cosmetic changes.
The latest shakeup has not promised to eliminate US or Iranian collaborators, only to secularise the future of Iraq’s political system.
Nazli Tarzi
is an independent journalist, whose writings and films focus on Iraq’s ancient history and contemporary political scene.

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.