Developing a profound understanding of factors that influence Iraq’s future as a nation requires going beyond current affairs such as the siege of Mosul or the political role of Iraq’s popular irregular forces (the Hashd al-Shabi). It necessitates analysis of the heart of political power in Iraq and this means focusing on historical and contemporary socio-political manifestations of Shi’ism. It is for this reason that the report analyses the dynamics of relation- and coalition-building between the country’s main Shi’a political groups from 1991 to 2016. It focuses mostly on the Islamic Da’wa Party, the Sadrist Trend, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and Iraq’s various irregular forces.
It finds that Shi’a political relation- and coalition-building can be characterized as follows:
Iraq’s Shi’a are far from a unified political force despite their shared belief. Instead, their political parties compete viciously with each other, using all means imaginable.
Historical legacies and the role/quality of leaders dominate political party development.
There is a high degree of continuity of individual Shi’a leaders and elites in Iraq’s governance at the level of the central state.
Coalitions between Shi’a parties have been unstable, ad hoc affairs aimed at winning the vote, carving up public authority and resources, and/or responding to an imminent threat.
Religion-based political influence is strong on issues on which the Shi’a community is united, but limited on issues on which it is not.
Shi’a political parties unite temporarily in the face of an external threat, especially if called upon by their religious leadership, but this tends to be short-lived and does not reduce opportunistic political behaviour.
About the authors
Erwin van Veen is a senior research fellow with Clingendael’s Conflict Research Unit. A political scientist by training, Erwin applies this lens to research about the power dynamics and organization of security and justice in conflict-prone environments. On top of this, extensive travel in the Middle East after secondary school engendered a lasting interest in the region’s conflicts.
Nick Grinstead is a research assistant with Clingendael's Conflict Research Unit. Nick's research and interests lie in security arrangements, governance, and geopolitics of the Middle East and the Sahel, which he views through a political economy lens.
Floor El Kamouni-Janssen works at the Clingendael Conflict Research Unit as a research fellow. Floor’s research at the Clingendael Institute concentrates on security and stability in the Arab region and the policy implications of regional trends and developments including migration and violent extremism.
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