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Identity politics on the ropes in Iraq?

In forming a new government, a prime minister-designate tries to take Iraq beyond a quota system for sharing power by religion and ethnicity. Young Iraqis seek a broader identity.

AP
Adel Abdul-Mahdi, center, leaves Iraq's parliament building after being designating as prime minister.

In a region rife with identity politics arising from ethnic and religious differences, Iraqis experienced something very universal in early October. A newly designated prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, launched a website asking Iraqis to apply for top government ministers.

Within days, more than 36,000 people applied. Almost all were independent of established parties. And 15 percent were women.

Mr. Mahdi’s extraordinary move was quite contrary to a tradition in Iraq of politicians forming cabinets in backroom deals based on a power-sharing quota among the country’s three major communities: Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds.

One prominent politician, Ammar al-Hakim of the National Wisdom Movement, praised Mahdi for trying to “choose those who meet the criteria of efficiency, firmness, integrity, and ability to serve and fight corruption.”

An even more influential figure, Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose party won the most votes in a recent parliamentary election, declared, “Is it not high time for qualified, independent technocrats [to assume posts in the coming government] in order to coexist in peace and security away from the dagger of treachery and corrupt deals?”

Next week, the prime minister-designate plans to announce his proposed cabinet. If many of the names are capable administrators not beholden to party interests in gaining jobs for loyalists or revenue from bribes, it will reflect a new political maturity in Iraq.

Since the country’s embrace of democracy after the 2003 ouster of dictator Saddam Hussein by the United States, Iraq has made steady if uneven progress toward a national identity based on shared values and common interests. That progress has been lately hastened by three events.

One was a recognition by the Shiite majority after last year’s victory over the Islamic State that it must treat minority Sunnis as equal citizens. The defeat of the Sunni militant group, which had taken over a third of Iraq in 2014, was made possible only by unifying Iraq’s major groups behind the nation’s security forces.

Another event was mass protests since July among young Shiites in Iraq’s second-largest city, Basra. Their demands were quite basic and secular: an end to corruption, a regular supply of electricity and clean water, and a curb on Iranian influence in Iraq.

About 40 percent of Iraqis were born after 2003. They have seen four successive changes in power by democratic means. They expect more of their leaders than a partisan contest to divide up the nation’s oil wealth.

The third event was a statement in September from the influential Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani saying that the next prime minister should not be someone who has held the post before. The choice of Mahdi reflects a wide consensus among the parties. He is a former vice president and oil minister who shuns sectarianism in governance.

Many democracies are now highly divided over identity politics, from gender to religion to ethnicity. In Iraq, such divisions are even institutionalized as a power-sharing norm. It has not worked.

As scholar Francis Fukuyama writes in a new book, “Identity,” countries must organize their identity on broad-based rights, or a view of each individual as capable of self-rule. “Unless we can work our way back to more universal understandings of human dignity, we will doom ourselves to continuing conflict,” he writes.

Iraq may be slowly heeding that lesson. For all its turmoil, its people are shining a light for the rest of the Middle East.

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