Putting Faith in the Masses To Forge New Secular Rule

Former interim prime minister Ayad Allawi, middle, and former foreign minister Adnan Pachachi, right, are promoting a coalition to unite secularists and moderates from different sectarian backgrounds. Jamal al-Shumarry is at left.
Former interim prime minister Ayad Allawi, middle, and former foreign minister Adnan Pachachi, right, are promoting a coalition to unite secularists and moderates from different sectarian backgrounds. Jamal al-Shumarry is at left. (By Hasan Jamali -- Associated Press)

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By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 6, 2007

BAGHDAD, April 5 -- Inside a hut made of reeds, the Shiite cleric sat cross-legged on the carpeted floor and spoke of wonders.

"A great miracle took place a few days ago," said Iyad Jamaleddin.

He was referring to the victory of Shada Hassoun, an Iraqi woman who triumphed last week in the Lebanese television show "Star Academy," the "American Idol" of the Arab world. In her victory with 7 million votes, and in the frenzied celebration among Iraqis of all sects for the glamorous singer, he saw a glimpse of the political base he has spent four years trying to harness.

"For those who don't know the Iraqi people very well, they think they are extremist Shia and extremist Sunni and Kurds. This is not the reality," he said. "I have been confident that the Iraqi people yearn for a secular government and that the religious movements are weak. The masses, deep inside, are secular. And none of the politicians understood what I was saying until this great miracle happened."

Although it will take more than a pop star to change the ruling order in Iraq -- a country dominated by Shiite Muslim politicians both in parliament and in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government -- the forgotten secularists of Iraq are making political maneuvers they hope will strengthen their voice and position them to seize more power before the next elections.

To Jamaleddin, a man who wears the black turban denoting his place in the ancestral line of the prophet Muhammad, but who smokes cigars and celebrates the virtues of soccer and dancing, the growth of religious extremism has torn apart the fabric of Iraq.

He has a conference planned for this summer to launch what he calls the Iraqi Democratic Secular Movement. Former interim prime minister Ayad Allawi and former foreign minister Adnan Pachachi, meanwhile, have been barnstorming Iraq and the Middle East in recent weeks to gain support for a proposed coalition of groups both inside the parliament and outside the government that would unite secularists and moderates from different sectarian backgrounds.

"We have found a great deal of sympathy to support our point of view," Pachachi, a member of the 25-member Iraqi National List, said in a telephone interview from Bahrain. "I think people realize the alternative is continuing chaos in Iraq."

In recent weeks, the ruling Shiite coalition in the 275-member parliament, the United Iraqi Alliance, lost 15 of its 130 seats when the Fadhila party announced it was leaving the bloc, which some politicians expect is a prelude to an alliance with Allawi's group. Another powerful segment of the ruling coalition, the political followers of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, has been riven with internal disputes.

Critics of the current Shiite-led government complain that Islamic theology infuses many of its decisions and that its leaders have made little tangible progress reconciling with the minority Sunnis, who controlled Iraq under the government of ousted President Saddam Hussein. To further his new alliance, Pachachi said he plans to convene a meeting soon to lay the structure of his new political bloc, known as the National Front, which he says could capture a majority in parliament if it includes the Kurdish parties and the leading Sunni bloc, the Tawafuq party.

"I feel there is a great deal of disenchantment with the track record of these parties in power," he said. "And we have to remember the overwhelming majority of Shias and Sunnis are not involved in this sectarian environment, they are victims of sectarianism."

Allawi, a secular Shiite, has said in recent weeks that if the new alliance could achieve a legislative majority, he would move to bring more former Baathists back to government jobs and overhaul the militia-infused police force.


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