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Who Speaks for the Shi'a of Iraq?

Author: Rachel Schneller, International Affairs Fellow
February 19, 2010
Jamestown Foundation

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Iraq's Shi'a Arabs, the demographic majority with an estimated 60-70% of the population, wield the most political influence in Iraq. But the Shi'a of Iraq are a diverse group, with major regional differences between the Shi'a of Basra and the deep South and the Shi'a of the north-central region. Iraq's Shi'a hold divergent views on the appropriate role of religion in government. Other areas of internal division among Shi'a parties exist, such as a common position on cooperation with the United States, but these are secondary in their influence on Shi'a voters.

Iraq's Shi'a political parties have fought battles with each other that at times were as bloody as the sectarian war between Sunnis and Shi'a in 2006-2008. From 2005-2008, the Badr Corps of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and Sadrists fought militia battles in the streets of Basra. In 2009, the two groups reconciled and formed a coalition for the March 2010 elections. How could two groups bent on eliminating each other become allies only two years later? Why did Da'awa-the compromise party supported by both ISCI and Sadrists in 2006 for the Prime Ministership-break from the coalition in 2009?

Secularism vs. Theocracy

Iraq's Shi'a hold widely divergent views on secularism and the role of religion in post-Saddam Iraq. Many Shi'a view secularism-a main characteristic of Saddam's regime - with distrust. Indeed, secularism and Ba'athism are synonymous in the minds of many Iraqi Shi'a. Saddam's Ba'athist agents, both Sunni and Shi'a, noted who attended Shi'a mosques and reported on Shi'a clergy and Iraqi travel to Iran. Saddam was not trying to exterminate Shiism from Iraq. Rather, he wanted to eradicate the Shi'a opposition that used Shi'a religious institutions and sought refuge in Iran to organize and plan attacks against Saddam. But the effect of Saddam's surveillance of Shi'a mosques and clergy was perceived by Iraq's Shi'a population as a threat to their religious identity. In spite of opposition to Saddam, many of Iraq's Shi'a were as secular in their political and social views as most Ba'athists, and opposed an Iranian-style theocratic government.

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