In the coverage of Iraq’s recent parliamentary election, former interim prime minister Iyad Allawi and his Iraqiya bloc has been characterized as, in the words of reporter Anthony Shadid, “a default leader for Sunnis” and, in the words of fellow reporter Leila Fadel, “the candidate of choice for Sunni Arabs.” Fadel and Shadid are excellent journalists and are reflecting the reality that provinces with heavily Sunni Arab populations are voting for Iraqiya, but casting Allawi and his coalition as a “Sunni bloc” further perpetuates the false notion of an underlying sectarian and communitarian basis for Iraqi politics that has driven much of the discourse in the United States about Iraqi politics.
First, while Iraqiya includes several Sunni Arab politicians like Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi and al-Hadbaa leader Osama al-Nujaifi, it is, unlike other prominent vote-getters, an explicitly secular list. Allawi himself is a secular Iraqi of Shi’a religious background — and a former Baathist who left the party as Saddam Hussein rose to power in the late 1970s, nearly paying for it with his life.
Calling Allawi a “candidate from a Sunni electorate,” as a rival from current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s bloc did, is misleading. While it may be true that many Sunni Arabs voted for Iraqiya, it remains possible that they see their lots better off under secular, non-sectarian government than under a government run by Shi’a sectarian parties like Maliki’s Dawa, the Iranian-backed Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, or the Sadrist movement. In other words, even if Sunni Arabs strongly define themselves as such they may conclude that their interests lay with secular and not religiously-based politics.
It’s not difficult to see why Sunnis and other Iraqi religious minorities might find Allawi’s secular message appealing. As he told al-Jazeera in the days before the election, “… the trend in Iraq is moving away from sectarianism, towards secularism. And we believe very strongly that… we [must] create a real partnership in Iraq, and we respect all the sects, we respect all religions. But the way forward for Iraq is definitely secular-rooted.”
Ultimately, the main problem with writing off Allawi’s Iraqiya coalition as basically a Sunni Arab-only party is that it marginalizes an invisible secular nationalist constituency in Iraq. This constituency has been ignored, especially by policymakers in Washington, largely thanks to preconceived notions of Iraq as an uneasy confederation of three main ethno-religious sects and the superior organization of sectarian political parties. But Iraqiya’s ability to run neck-and-neck with Prime Minister Maliki’s State of Law coalition for a plurality both in overall vote totals and parliamentary seats suggests that secular nationalism still has a strong political pull for many Iraqis — not necessarily just those of Sunni Arab background.
While we should recognize that Iraqiya has tapped into a considerable secular nationalist constituency, we shouldn’t go too far and hail the end of sectarian politics in Iraq. As mentioned, Iraqiya is running strongly and Allawi could very well wind up Iraq’s next prime minister. But Iraqi politics remain extremely fragmented and sectarian parties — mainly Shi’a Islamist parties like Dawa, ISCI, and Sadrists, but also the Kurdish parties — still managed to win the majority of the vote.
What Iraqiya’s strong showing should do, however, is disabuse observers and policymakers of ideas that Iraqi politics are to be conceived of in strictly sectarian terms. Allawi has shown that a previously unexploited secular nationalist constituency exists, and DC pundits ought to adjust their analysis accordingly.