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Hayder is a Researcher at the Centre for Academic Shi’a Studies. He is also a postgraduate student at the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy, SOAS. You can follow him on Twitter @Hayder_alKhoei

A Return to Sectarianism?

Mehdi Army in Basra, March 26, 2008

Iraq has just recently broken the world record for the longest time taken to form a government, having outdone the Dutch attempt in 1977. Many in Iraq will be relieved that their elected officials have finally made substantial progress in forming the new government but the result, pragmatic as it may be, is not a healthy sign for Iraq’s democracy.

Months of horse-trading and working out who has the right to form which government has led to negotiations going round in circles and every time a step to move forward was taken it was quickly reversed by opposition from rival parties each trying to take their fair share of the pie.

Prime Minister Noori al-Maliki, who is likely to remain in office if the proposed deal goes through, gained popularity and credibility in Iraq only because he took the fight to the Shia militias in Baghdad and the south and proved to the world that he was just as passionate about tackling the Shia outlaws as he was the Sunnis.

Now, however, the very same people who he fought in March 2008 will be propping up his new government. The Sadrists have a substantial powerbase in Iraq and are naturally expected to be part of any future government that is formed, but the hypocritical nature of their coalition with Maliki is dangerous for Iraq’s democracy because it means years of progress may be erased and take the country back to the days when sectarianism affected every aspect of Iraqi life.

The Sadrists understand, because of their violent history, that they cannot be trusted with any security posts in the new administration and that is why they are now pushing for several service ministries as well as other high-profile posts. The problem is that even with service ministries they will be allowed ample room to manipulate instruments of the state for their own agendas. No party in Iraq is innocent of this crime but they differ in extremes.

The Ministry of Health, for example, was involved heavily in the sectarian conflict that plagued Baghdad only a few years ago. Ambulances were used to transport militiamen across the city and many Sunnis were lured to their deaths. Fellow rival Shia were also targeted. Ammar al-Saffar, a high-ranking member of Maliki’s Dawa Party, and then Deputy Health Minister, was kidnapped by armed men in November 2006 and has not been seen since. Hakim al-Zamili, another Deputy Health Minister and member of the Sadr Movement which controlled the Ministry, was arrested for Saffar’s kidnapping and also for funnelling money and resources to the Mehdi Army. The charges were promptly dropped in a kangaroo court and Zamili has since been elected into parliament and will likely play a key role in the next government.

Maliki will almost certainly be willing to turn a blind eye to the kidnapping of his own colleague, and a string of other criminal activities, if it means he can stay in his seat for another term. This precedent cannot bode well for the future of Iraq.

The breaking-news of a Maliki-Sadr coalition has also shed light on a possible split within another Shia party, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, led by Ammar al-Hakim. Hadi al-Amari, the head of ISCI’s former military wing the Badr Organisation, attended the negotiations and yet Hakim and his colleagues are still opposed to a second term for Maliki and even refused to attend the meeting. The embarrassment led other Badr officials to quickly point out that Ameri attended in a personal capacity and that Badr will always stand by Hakim. ISCI has been demoted to the sidelines of Iraqi politics in the four years since Maliki has reigned and they fear another four years of their rivals in power will lead to a further relegation for their party.

The Sunnis in Iraq will be most upset by this news, as they decided not to boycott the elections and join the political process despite fears their attempts would be futile. The Iraqiya bloc they voted for won the elections by a margin but now they will not be forming the government only because of a sectarian Shia alliance.

The good news is Iraq will finally have a government that will be accountable to the people who risked life and limb to vote for them, but it could come with a heavy price that Iraq may not be able to afford at such a crucial moment in its turbulent history.

16 Comments on “A Return to Sectarianism?”

  1. Mohammed October 5, 2010 at 1:01 am #

    Dear Hayder:

    I very much respect your views, but I really don’t see what choice Maliki had in this current climate. Maliki sought to create a cross-sectarian party before the elections, but the sunnis by and large refused to join him.

    This struggle is not so much about sectarianism as it is about not letting the Baath party return to power. Your father bless his soul believed very strongly that for Iraq to prosper Saddam and his thugs must not be allowed to rule Iraq. Every indication demonstrates that Iraqiya is nothing more than a front for Baathist rule by another name. People like Saleh Mutlaq, Dhafir al-Ani have publicly stated that the Baath party was the greatest party to rule Iraq. Al-Maliki cannot take a chance to allow those people to gain control of Iraq’s military, security, and intelligence services. Once that happens, you can kiss Iraq’s democracy goodbye, because Baathists cannot maintain control through democracy, and you will likely see Allawi declare a state of emergency, and suspend future elections (once he has replaced Iraq’s senior officers with Saddam’s old officers).

    I HATE muqtada al-sadr, and pray that he and the thugs that serve him meet justice now and in the hereafter. However, the sadrists are a gang that can be defeated with time, and their appeal is quite limited. As long as Iraq stays out of civil war, and the government starts to deliver on services, improves the economy and job situation, Sadr’s appeal will melt away. Sadr and jaysh al mahdi were a shiite security blanket during the onslaught of wahabi/salafi terrorists upon innocent iraqis. Al-Maliki simply needs to remove the factors that favor having sadr’s thugs around.

    You may have more knowledge of Iraqi politics, but I dont see what other choice al-Maliki has. If you can enlighten me on a more practical and safer alternative for Iraq’s future, I would love to hear it. As I see it, it is picking between bad, worse, and worst.

    • Numan October 5, 2010 at 1:58 am #

      it’s definitely a return to sectarianism. al-maliki will form the government with a few posts given to sunnis to gain their participation.
      as far as the return of baathists, i can’t see why we can tolerate murderers like jaysh al mahdi and badr members in the upcoming government and not tolerate people who are just as extreme like al-mutlaq and al-ani with iraqi blood stained hands.

      • Elnino October 6, 2010 at 11:37 pm #

        Sunnis got more than what they deserve in the last government. It’s very funny when people living in another countries (Syria and Jordon) want to rule Iraqis.

  2. Mohammed October 5, 2010 at 5:08 am #

    Just to clarify:

    I definitely favor participation of all iraqis (sunnis, shia, kurds, christians), and even baathists and sadrists. The only caveat I would throw up there is that if a party is run by thugs like al-sadr or al-mutlaq, then I would not want them to be in charge or Iraq’s defense or interior ministry.

    Iraqiya has the right to participate in the Iraqi government and should participate. However, they only have a little over 25% of the vote, thus if they cannot form a majority in parliament like al-Maliki’s SOL can (when he joins with others), then we should respect the will of the Iraqi people as demonstrated by their respective votes for MPs.

  3. Hayder al-Khoei October 5, 2010 at 5:55 pm #


    You are right in saying it is a choice between bad, worse and worst. I still believe of all Iraq’s leading politicians, Maliki is the lesser of all evils.

    But the Sunni Arabs, who were always suspicious of the political process, are basically being told “your votes count for nothing, yes you won the elections, but sorry, the Shia, who spent years killing each other, have decided to hold hands now.”

    Al-Iraqiya won over 2 million votes, the Sadrists won little over 0.6 million… but guess which party gets to play a bigger role in the government by virtue of their sectarian background?

    Sectarianism is going to be a much bigger danger to Iraq in the long-run than Ani, Mutleg and their gangs. Thugs like them are ten a penny but they can be dealt with as individuals. Sectarianism, on the other hand, is going to rip the country apart (literally).

    • Elnino October 7, 2010 at 12:06 am #

      Sayed Hayder

      You are very emotional when it comes to Sadrists. If there was no Mahdi army (and other shia militias), the Sunni extremists would have killed all Shias in Baghdad in 2005-06.

      You may underestimate what I’m writing but I think this is the ugly truth (not the movie though ;). I’m sure you have saw many videos show innocent Iraqis are being killed (slaughtered) by radical Sunnis. Some people want to call them salafists while others wahhabis, however, they are SUNNIS.

      Regarding the government posts and ministries, I think the sunnis will get their share in the government and of course it will much larger the Sadrists.

      The idea that the sunnis are being marginalized is an Anglo-american idea to give them more power and what they are every desperate for is to give them the same share of power or more of the shia’s. The conditions of the shias in Bahrain (shia- majority country) is very miserable comparing to sunnis in Iraq. So, they are very biased people and what ever they do is only for their benefits.

      I don’t like the Sadrists myself but they are not as criminal as the neoba’athists.

  4. Mohammed October 7, 2010 at 5:07 pm #


    Sadrists (who have murdered/raped/tortured/stolen) are just as bad if not worse than Baathist (who have murdered/raped/tortured/stolen). I take issue with your views that Hayder’s emotions are clouding his judgment. Iraq needs to find a solution for all sunnis and shia to live in peace. It would be just as dangerous for Iraq’s democracy to allow sadrists to control our security as it would be to put baathists there.

    The filthy people who murdered Shahid al-Khoie are all as bad if not worse than Saddam.

    Sunni Iraqis must be welcomed to participate in the government. I think it is debatable about whether Iraqiya should be given the priority to form the government since they won the largest number of seats in elections. Please see Reidar Visser’s website, and you will see that Allawi, Hashemi and company had different views on what a kutla was when the last government was formed in 2006. And the supreme court now states that post-election Kutlas are possible. Be that as it may, as is very apparent in the press, it is Iraqiya that is refusing to work with al-Maliki (not the other way around). However, as hard-nosed as they want to be, al-Maliki should still make them feel welcome for the sake of peace in Iraq.

    A big mistake Shia make is that they forget that the prophet and the imams were quite forgiving against those who fought against them or usurped their rights. I think this goes in line with the excellent article Hayder wrote some time ago about the South Africa post-apartheid case study in national reconciliation.


  5. Hayder al-Khoei October 7, 2010 at 5:55 pm #


    Your argument is not only flawed but exactly what is said to justify the murder of innocent people. It is a very skewed reading of history.

    A thousand years ago, Ummayad Caliphs mass murdered the Shia but could not get rid of them. Hundreds of years ago, Ottoman Sultans mass murdered the Shia but could not get rid of them. A few decades ago, Saddam mass murdered the Shia but could not get rid of them. Are you honestly that naive to think a few hundred Jihadis from Saudi and Syria armed with AK47’s could actually have “killed all the Shia of Baghdad”?

    You think there was something special and unique about the sectarian violence in Iraq post-2003 that somehow makes it different from previous outbreaks of violence? Under the Ottomans and Safavids both the Sunnis and Shias were mass murdered and during times of conflict the residents of Baghdad resorted to drinking the blood of cats and dogs because there was no water and girls resorted to selling their virginity for a load of bread… but guess what? Neither the Sunnis or Shias disappeared.

    “Some people want to call them salafists while others wahhabis, however, they are SUNNIS.”

    You can label them all as “Sunnis” that is up to you. But just remember that Imam Hussein, Moqtada al-Sadr, Elnino and Iyad Allawi are all SHIA.

    • Mohammed A October 7, 2010 at 6:38 pm #

      My family in Baghdad came within a hair’s breadth of being killed by a sunni miltia when the latter were going house to house in a Shia area of Baghdad killing everyone inside. Luckily, the Mahdi Army did save them in time. Perhaps you should not be so flippant about peoples’ lives and the danger they faced, as if it’s just another historical episode – something for the history books. It’s ok that my relatives were almost slaughtered because a few Shia would have been left in Najaf and Karbala? This is one reason the Mahdi army became ingrained in Iraq – because they provided protection that people needed and didn’t get from useless security forces; whether the Khoeis like it or not, it’s a fact.

      Addressed to others: Despite what I said above, the Mahdi Army must be seen for the utter brutal criminals that they are. They raped, tortured, murdered, robbed, kidnapped and terrorised the Shia of Basra. Militia groups like them start out providing protection, then Talebanise.

      Their other crime is that they are traitors. They took orders from the IRGC, created waves of violence and destruction (again, in Shia areas) to force a failure in Iraq so that the Iranians could capitalise on the subsequent havoc and make themselves a less politically viable target for the US.

      As far as the Iraqi Sunnis are concerned, the best thing that Maliki can do right now is cut off the head of the snake, and separate Allawi’s ba’athist party from their voters. I think that if Maliki can integrate them into the secturity forces in large numbers, and pump lots of construction projects into the area, he can divorce them from the ba’athists. He needs to work with the Anbari Sheikhs directly and form a partnership with them.

  6. Hayder al-Khoei October 7, 2010 at 7:19 pm #

    The same group who saved your family also went on to kill other innocent Sunnis when they invaded their neighbourhoods in Baghdad and they acted in exactly the same manner as the people they were protecting your family from. Why can’t Iraqi people see this vicious cycle of bloodshed instead of only looking at the victims from their side?

    The Mehdi Army’s destructive behaviour did not just effect Basra. They set up sharia courts in Najaf, judged, tried, and executed innocent people. They rioted at the shrine in Kerbala. They rampaged in Nassiriya and took control of the streets in typical mafia fashion. They destroyed entire neighbourhoods in Baghdad. They burnt Basra. They mass-murdered innocent Iraqis – both Shia and Sunnis.

    The sectarian violence is not “something for the history books”. Far from it, every outbreak of sectarian violence in Baghdad created the same emotions and anger as the most recent one, we are just living in a different time and it may not be that obvious from first glance.

    • Mohammed A October 7, 2010 at 8:01 pm #

      You tried to downplay the fact that the Mahdi Army saved Shia lives by appealing to history saying that “we’ve always survived”, basically. What a ridiculous thing to bring up. So what if the Sunnis were unsuccessful in eradicating the Shia in previous eras? The were unsuccessful in eradicating my relatives and their neighbours because of the Mahdi Army. No one claimed that justifies anything else tbey did, but don’t ignore facts.

  7. Hayder al-Khoei October 7, 2010 at 9:28 pm #

    There is a fine line between downplaying and putting things into context. There was nothing unique about the sectarian violence in 2006-7 and I was trying to show Iraq has gone through much bleaker periods in the past. I respect that it may not have been the case for your family.

    History is never a ridiculous thing to bring up. What is ridiculous is claiming Jaysh al-Mehdi (and other Shia miltia) stopped the Shia of Baghdad becoming extinct.

  8. Bruno October 13, 2010 at 9:15 am #

    This thread is very interesting and affords one a unique perspective into the thoughts of Iraqis and the debate that takes place between you guys. Thank you so much.

    I just have one small comment, as an outsider: the path implied by Hayder will lead to the possibility of stability. The path implied by Mohammed will inevitably lead to further sectarian bloodshed and cleansing.

    Basically: do Iraqis want to still live in “Iraq” … or Shiastan, Sunnistan and Kurdistan?


  9. Numan October 15, 2010 at 4:03 am #

    it’s good to see different opinions coming up in a civilized talk. i wonder how that’s gonna be if it was face to face 🙂
    one note to mention about jaysh al mahdi and the sunni militias is that members of jaysh al mahdi were, and still are, part of iraqi security forces. some sunnis who were involved in killing other iraqis became part of sahwa groups and some of them have become part of the security forces now. there’s no doubt that shiites are playing a major role in controlling security especially in baghdad.
    i don’t have any proper statistics to support my argument but just relying on the number of friends who left the country, i can say more people from non-shiite backgrounds left baghdad than from shiite backgrounds. this observation is subjective and is confined to baghdad.

  10. Fatema November 2, 2010 at 8:01 pm #

    hmmmm I wonder who went up the araki allayway

    think again jaysh il Mahdi (atfs)


  1. Babylon Assault « British Iraqi Forum - October 4, 2010

    […] its hypocritical and constantly disappointing nature (as explained by Hayder Al-Khoie’s post) manage to infuriate me every now and then. To escape from it or seek distraction, I take refuge in […]

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