Anticipating Iraq’s provincial elections this Saturday, the Center for American Progress has released a report by Peter Juul and me, The Fractured Shia of Iraq. This report examines the ongoing competition among Iraq’s dominant Shia religious factions.
As they have done since 2005, religious Shia political parties are likely to shape Iraqi politics at all levels in central and southern Iraq. It remains to be seen which, if any, of these factions will dominate. The end of Saddam Hussein’s regime, followed by the 2005 election of a transitional government, opened a new political space for Iraq’s Shia, bringing Shia Arabs into power for the first time in the Arab world. This power shift represented a significant change for a Middle East previously neatly divided between the mostly Persian Shia of Iran and Sunni Arab-led states, unsettling regional politics, especially among those Sunni Arab nations with significant Shia minorities, including the Gulf States, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon.
As Juul and I argue in the report, exploring the history of Iraqi Shia political-religious trends is necessary for understanding Iraq’s political future. Whether and how the points of contention among Iraq’s Shia parties, which mirror the divisions within Iraq more broadly, are resolved will significantly affect the Obama administration’s Middle East policy as it seeks to shift greater attention and resources eastward to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The U.S. troop surge in Iraq in 2007 and 2008 was intended to provide the political space for reconciliation among the Kurds and Sunni and Shia Arabs, but this remains elusive.
These elections are the first in a series of elections Iraq will have later this year, and may serve as a barometer of what’s to come. There are concerns about low voter turnout given that these elections fall close to a major Shia holiday. Early voting is going smoothly.
But Iraq faces a long road ahead in its political transition. Importantly, it may well be the struggle for power within the Shia community that determines how the United States exits Iraq. Importantly, it may well be the struggle for power within the Shia community that determines how the United States exits Iraq.