In Iraqi Politics, the Sunni-Shi'ite Divide Recedes

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Mohanned Faisal / Reuters

Residents walk in front of campaign posters in Fallujah

Mohammad al-Rubeiy, dressed in a smart black suit and black tie, holding an armful of campaign posters, is feeling optimistic. He is campaigning vigorously to win a seat on Baghdad's provincial council on Jan. 31, when millions of Iraqis are expected to cast their votes in 14 of Iraq's provinces. He has passed out personal campaign cards, posters and mini pocket calendars with his name printed on them. He even hopes to hold an outdoor political debate with his opponents — the first in Iraq that he knows of. Says al-Rubeiy: "I got the idea from Obama. I liked the debates between Obama and John McCain."

Al-Rubeiy isn't a top contender. He is campaigning as a member of the secular Iraqi National Accord Party, headed by former Prime Minister Ayad al-Allawi. It is a party that falls below the popularity of ruling Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa Islamic Party. Rubeiy believes that his party ranks fourth or fifth in the eyes of his fellow Iraqis in the capital.

Still, candidates for the Iraqi National Accord, Iraq's second largest secular party after the Kurdish bloc, say they see a window of opportunity. As Iraq moves toward its first round of nationwide elections in nearly four years, a complex political map of new parties and fluid, cross-sectarian alliances suggest that the country may be slowly moving beyond the Shi'ite-Sunni divide that characterized the post–Saddam Hussein politics of previous years.

To start, the main Shi'ite and Sunni political blocs are crumbling. In three weeks of infighting over the resignation of the speaker of parliament and the task of appointing his replacement, the Sunni Tawafiq bloc has shrunk to just over half its original size of 44 MPs. In the past three years, parliament has also seen the ruling Shi'ite bloc slowly split apart. The most significant blow came in 2007 with the angry departure of dozens of followers of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. And the bloc's remaining big powers — al-Maliki's Dawa Islamic Party and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq — will be running on separate lists come Jan. 31, thereby splitting the Shi'ite vote.

A list is the group of candidates numbered (that is, ranked in terms of preference) by each party. Iraqis can choose to vote for a candidate or for a list. In previous elections, the big parties ran under combined "closed lists" in which candidates were not named and the choices were limited.

"In the last election, there were alliances. Most of those alliances have fractured, and each one now has its own list," says Iman al-Barazenchi, an Iraqi National Accord candidate for the Baghdad provincial council. Secular candidates say disillusionment with the legacy of those blocs is also creating a shift toward a more nonsectarian type of politics. "The Islamic party and the Islamic movements are retreating from the Iraqi streets. The Iraqi streets are becoming non-Sunni and non-Shi'ite," says another secular candidate, Nebras al-Ma'mouri. "Voters are looking for people outside of these things. I can't say all of Iraqi society is thinking this way, but I think a lot of people are."

The evolving picture of the Prime Minister's popularity in the Iraqi streets may provide another example of fading sectarianism. Al-Maliki has gained a wide base of support across Sunni and Shi'ite communities over the past year for taking a hard stance in negotiations over the new U.S.-Iraqi security pact and for playing tough with both Shi'ite and Sunni insurgents. "I'll vote for Maliki's party," says Rafaat Khalid Ahmed, a university lecturer in Baghdad's predominantly Sunni Mansour district. "He showed courage in dealing with the major issues in Iraq, and that helped him defeat the militias and al-Qaeda on both sides."

"Religion and politics will never go together," says Emad al-Azzawi, a mobile-phone vendor in Hurriya district who says he too would vote for al-Maliki's Dawa Islamic Party, despite its predominant Shi'ite background. Indeed, al-Maliki has also found friends in a host of new tribe-based parties that have grown out of Anbar's largely Sunni Awakening movement. (See pictures of a summit of Anbar's sheiks.)

Others say Iraqis may be less willing now to buy into religion-based politics, but that the possibility of vote rigging by the ruling parties — as well as the manipulation of religious symbols by Dawa and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq to gain votes — are still real threats. "There are only three days between the local election and the 40th of Ashura [a holy day for Shi'ites]. Between now and the election, they will benefit from this," says al-Rubeiy. "I expect the religious parties to use sermons through [the holy month of] Muharram. They could spread very effective rumors that glorify Shi'ism."

Some Iraqis remain even more skeptical. "I don't want to vote. We haven't gained anything from the previous councils or the previous elections," says Ehsan Sadiq, owner of a grocery store in Baghdad's Harithiya district. "I have to tell you simply that over the past four years, I've grown not to trust anyone." Iraqi and U.S. officials say voter turnout is likely to be very high, with fewer groups boycotting the vote than in 2005. But voices like Sadiq's are not uncommon.

As far as the liberal secularists are concerned, al-Rubeiy thinks they still have time to attract some of the disillusioned. Of course it would help, he says, if al-Allawi's party and others like it weren't suffering from the same problem as everyone else on Iraq's political stage: lack of unity. "I need one secular party. We need a liberal front," he says. "If we were all together, we would have a great chance — we would take No. 1 in Iraq."

With reporting by Mazin Ezzat / Baghdad