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Iraqi Communist Party Throws Hat Into Shiite Cleric Al-Sadr’s Ring

The country’s Communist Party has partnered with Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr

Prior to Iraq’s May 12 elections, the country’s Communist Party surprised many pundits by joining the Sairoon alliance, headed by firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, which ended up winning a plurality of 54 seats in the 328-member parliament. Now, al-Sadr and his allies are engaged in complex negotiations to form a coalition government, a process that must be completed within 90 days.

Many analysts are still trying to understand how a party that adheres to Communist political ideology—in part defined by an ultra-secular, even atheist agenda—paired up with the religiously conservative Sadrist movement to win the Iraqi vote. However, upon further inspection, both sides appear to have numerous overlapping goals.

First, the otherwise strange bedfellows are seemingly intent on limiting Iran’s influence in the country. In the days after the elections, Sairoon alliance supporters reportedly gathered in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square to celebrate the victory, chanting, “Iran is out, Iraq is free” and “Bye bye Maliki,” a reference to previous prime minister Nouri al-Maliki who was perceived as a close ally of Tehran.

Moreover, a central tenet of the partners’ platform is a commitment to rooting out corruption, deemed a primary source of Iraq’s sectarian divisions. In a recent interview with Al Jazeera, for example, Secretary of the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP), Raed Fahmi, asserted that, “we believe that over the past 12 years, the political process was based on an ethnic and sectarian system.… It created the grounds for corruption and lack of development.”

Similarly, al-Sadr has been able to unite poor and working-class Shiites and Sunnis beset by decades of deadly sectarian violence and the resulting economic woes. Dhia’a Assadi, Al-Sadr’s closest aide, was quoted after the elections by the New York Times as saying that his boss “has always been a voice for the poor [who] saw that it was to the benefit for all Iraqis for those who share principles to come together.”

The Sairoon alliance’s strong showing raises many questions about Communism’s appeal in Iraq and, more broadly, throughout the Arab World.

Dr. Nussaibah Younis, an expert on Iraq at the London-based Chatham House think-tank contended to The Media Line that, “the Communist Party has recently become a vehicle for those who reject the politics of the post-2003 [Saddam Hussein] era. It has become identified with a broad social-justice agenda and has attracted the support of Iraqis who are tired of the government’s poor public service delivery and corruption.

“The Sadrists and the Communists,” she elaborated to The Media Line, “have a common, ideological focus on serving ‘the masses’ and a shared desire to upend the status quo.”

Nevertheless, Dr. Younis qualified, the details of their association may not have been entirely well thought out. “There is considerable anxiety among the left-wing in Iraq over the extent to which the Sadrists will preserve and extend freedom not to observe religious values, especially since the Communists are firmly the junior partners in this alliance. Although there may be liberal Sadrists at the leadership level,” she continued, “such open-minded attitudes may not extend to their support base on issues like women’s rights.”

Joel Wing, an analyst at the Musings On Iraq website, provided The Media Line with some historical background on the ICP and its recent revival. “Formed in 1934, he Communist Party is Iraq’s oldest political party. It follows traditional Marxist-Leninism and was formerly pro-Soviet Union when that country existed. There were Communist parties throughout the Middle East in competition with other parties,” he expounded, “most importantly the various pan-Arabist parties like the Nasserites and Baathists.”

According to Wing, the Communists in Iraq built a support base among the country’s working-class and student populations, despite constantly being harassed by the monarchy between 1932 and 1958. Proponents of the ideology were, therefore, some of the main backers of General Abd al-Karim Qasim’s seizure of power in a 1958 military coup, but were then nearly destroyed by the Baath Party when it assumed control over Iraq in 1968. From then on, the Communists, for the most part, operated underground.

“The party barely held on and publicly re-emerged after the 2003 invasion, but as a very small entity,” Wing explained to The Media Line. “It came back to prominence in the last five years when it joined up with civil society groups to lead protests against corruption, calling for better governance and an end to the quota system in government.”

The quota system, a mainstay of Iraq’s political system since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, ensures a proportional distribution of government positions along ethno-sectarian lines. Critics have lambasted the system as the primary source of the nation’s endemic corruption.

“Through anti-corruption protests, the ICP formed an alliance with the Sadrists which led to the Sairoon list in the May elections,” Wing said. “The Communists decided to join with the Sadrists because the alliance offered them protection and a way into the Iraqi political elite.”

Nevertheless, there remains much uncertainty within the ranks of the ICP, many of whose members remain concerned that al-Sadr will impose policies that are anathema to them. “In fact,” Wing concluded, “the Communists are worried that al-Sadr will bring into the government parties the Communists do not like. Some are thinking of leaving Sairoon if that happens.”

As negotiations over the shape of the new government continue, terrorist groups are already working to thwart the ICP’s participation in the coalition. Just last week, Reuters reported that two home-made bombs were used to target the ICP’s Baghdad headquarters.