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Will Iraqis draw a line between mosque and state?

Shift in thought

The campaign for the May 12 election shows voters may want less politics based on religious parties and more civic unity on common interests.

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People gather at a May 8 campaign rally for a parliamentary candidate in Baghdad, Iraq. Voters will cast their ballots Saturday, May 12, in the first parliamentary election since the country declared victory over the Islamic State extremist group. The balloting is expected to be a referendum on Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s tenure and his pledge to be more inclusive of Iraq’s Sunni minority.

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This weekend, Iraq holds its fourth election since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and the first since the defeat of Islamic State (ISIS) last year. As one of the Middle East’s few democracies, it is still on a sharp learning curve. Yet it seems to be adopting one big lesson: Don’t mix mosque and state.

Most of the country’s political parties are religious based (Sunni or Shiite). Yet over the past 15 years, their leaders have mostly proved corrupt or ineffective in running government. In the eyes of Iraqis, they have sullied their particular brand of religion, just as ISIS certainly did during its violent 2014-17 caliphate.

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For this election, campaign themes have had to be more secular, offering practical promises such as rule of law and clean governance. In addition, more Sunni and Shiite politicians are partnering up.

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One reason is that more Iraqi voters demand to be treated as citizens, not congregants. They have lived through 15 years of sectarian violence. Their identity has broadened to embrace the common traditions and civic interests of other Iraqis. While many voters are still too cynical to vote, for those who plan to cast ballots, the parties are singing an inclusive tune.

That is an uphill struggle. The electoral system, devised in 2005 under United States guidance, sets a quota system for power based on Iraq’s religious and ethnic communities. The power sharing only reinforces the notion that each group is due a portion of government spoils and therefore each should hang together. Years of sectarian strife are what left a political vacuum for ISIS to fill. It also allows Iran to wield more influence over the Shiite-based parties.

The greatest champion of keeping religion out of politics happens to be Iraq’s most revered Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. In a statement a week before the May 12 election, he asked Iraqis not to vote along sectarian lines, to avoid foreign influence, and for clergy not to endorse any party. He also warned voters not to vote for politicians “who are corrupt and those who have failed” in their posts.

“There is hope that the possibility of correcting and reforming the course of governance can be achieved through the concerted efforts of the people of this country and the use of other legal methods available for that,” he stated.

In the past Mr. Sistani’s words have rallied Iraqis in times of crisis. He is an opponent of Iran’s system, in which one religious leader holds supreme power, because of its inherent denial of equality before God.

After the election, Iraqi politicians may again go to their sectarian corners and haggle in divvying up key government positions. But if Sistani’s call to put the country's interest first reaches voters, we may see less “mosque” and more “state” in Iraq's public affairs.