War in Syria. Gloom over Iran. Can Iraq provide hope?

An election in Iraq shows how the Middle East might rise above divides over religion to embrace a unifying identity.

AP Photo
A worker prepares election banners in Baghdad, Iraq. Nearly 7,000 candidates eager to shape the country's future have begun campaigning for 329 seats in the May 12 parliamentary elections.

As Western leaders debate when to strike Syria over its use of chemical weapons and wonder if Iran deserves more sanctions against its nuclear threat, they may be missing a peaceful counternarrative in the Middle East – one that still needs support.

Oddly enough, Iraq, the country that lies between Iran and Syria, is about to hold free national elections on May 12. And what really stands out is that the vote has become a showcase for Iraq’s steady progress in overcoming religious and ethnic divides since the 2003 American invasion.

Official campaigning for the election of a new parliament kicks off April 14. But even before that, a covert attempt by Iran to corral Iraq’s majority Shiite community into a strictly sectarian political coalition – one that would exclude minority Sunnis and Kurds – has failed. Leading Shiite figures, such as Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, are running on platforms that emphasize national unity and a struggle against endemic corruption.

A public mood to reinforce an Iraqi identity over the country’s normal fault lines is easy to understand. Last year, the nation’s military triumphed over Islamic State militants who had taken over a third of the country in 2014. Also last year, a vote in the Kurdish region for independence failed. Young people are fed up with corruption, forcing politicians to claim they can curb it. And the country has enjoyed unusual economic growth and a greater flow of abundant oil exports.

In a clear sign of democratic health, nearly 7,000 candidates are running for 329 seats. Many candidates reflect a popular resentment against Iran’s meddling in Iraq, which is driven by Tehran’s desire for a land bridge through Syria and to the coast of Lebanon.

At a deeper level, many Iraqis accept the ideas of a leading Shiite theologian, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who disagrees with Iran’s model of governance. A cleric himself, he says clerics should not run secular affairs, especially in a diverse society where citizens are treated equally.

Iraq is still hardly a model democracy after nearly 15 years of elections. The political haggling after this vote may be difficult. One underlying issue: whether a new government will demand American forces to leave. Such a request is unlikely, as the United States still provides massive aid to Iraq.

Still, with a Middle East so unsettled by religion-based rivalries, Iraq’s small steps in forming an inclusive identity need to be welcomed.

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