Analysis. A Communist Party candidate named Suhad al-Khateeb won Najaf, the holy city of the Shiites. She represents a fresh political landscape in a country frustrated with the lack of progress in post-Saddam Iraq.

The new face of Iraq: a communist woman

Her name is Suhad al-Khateeb. She is a teacher and an activist for the rights of women and the poor. She is a communist, and she lives in Najaf. More than al-Sadr, she stands as a symbol for the results of the Iraqi parliamentary elections on May 12. A woman, a feminist and a communist, she has won a seat in a city where nobody thought it was possible: the holy city of the Shiites, the center for their theology and political power, the seat of the Mosque of Ali, the fourth Caliph and founding figure of the Shia movement.

Suhad ran as a candidate for the Communist Party as part of the Sairun coalition, led by the Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. She was already well known: people have seen her in Najaf for years, going around the slums and shanty towns, talking to students, workers and the unemployed. “People came to visit me at the school, looked at me and told me I was a role model, as a politician should be.”

She won her election, rendering irrelevant in a flash the traditional conflict between Islamism and communism, the latter having been considered in the Arab world for decades as a movement of the godless, dangerous for the order of society. In Iraq itself, starting from the ’50s, the edicts of the theologian Muhsin al-Hakim (leader of the Najaf hawza, the Shia school for jurists), accusing communists of misbelief, significantly dulled the appeal of the Communist Party among the practicing faithful.

But the parliamentary elections of May 12 showed Iraq as a different country: even though half of the voters chose to stay home, frustrated by the lack of changes in the post-Saddam era, those who turned out at the polls expressed a desire for unity. Tired of the old leaders, they chose new faces. This time, in many places, they chose ideas over identity (for example, the Shiite al-Abadi won in the Sunni province of Nineveh).

The Sairun coalition combined Sadrist and Communist ideas: fighting unemployment, corruption and outside influences, both US and Iranian ones. It finished in first place in the election, and will be the largest party with 54 seats out of 329, as the official results on Saturday confirmed.

Consultations for the new government started immediately. Al-Sadr, who did not run himself and cannot be named prime minister, met on Saturday and Sunday with outgoing Prime Minister al-Abadi (whose Nasr party won 42 seats) and Hadi al-Amiri, the leader of the Fatah coalition of Shiite militias who have been fighting ISIS with Iranian support (47 seats).

For a governing majority, 165 seats are necessary. Hence the inevitability of a pluralistic coalition: “During our meeting, we agreed to work together and with other parties to expedite the process of forming a new Iraqi government,” said al-Sadr on Sunday, proposing broad agreements that would take into account the diverse nature of Iraq, seen from an ethnic, religious and social point of view.

On the previous day, standing next to al-Abadi, he had reaffirmed his intention to form a “caring and inclusive” government (“It will cover everyone … in order to achieve reform and prosperity”), aware, just like the outgoing prime minister, of the serious problems that Iraq is still facing: the reconstruction has not yet begun, even though some cities (Ramadi, Fallujah, Sinjar) have been liberated from ISIS rule years ago, around three million people remain displaced, wages are falling, unemployment is rising.

The press has forward some hypotheses: Sairun could join forces with al-Abadi (which has already given its approval), the Kurdish-Iraqi Barzani party, the KDP, the secularists of Wataniya and other smaller formations. Al-Abadi, a popular figure in much of the country, could remain Prime Minister with the blessings of the foreign powers, who consider him a moderate who does not lean towards either the Iranian axis or that of the US.

Such a block, in Sadr’s vision, would be necessary to keep their adversaries out of power, i.e. a possible alliance between the second and the third parties: the Shiite militias of al-Amiri and the party of former Prime Minister Maliki (considered by many to be the cause of the evils that have been afflicting the country since 2003), with its 26 seats. That would be an alliance with a strong Iranian bent, containing both the armed units operated by the Revolutionary Guard and General Suleimani and a leader notoriously close to the Islamic Republic.

Iran reiterated Monday that it did not wish to interfere and was willing to accept any government that would be formed. But the pressure exerted in recent years on Baghdad still remains, as Iraq is seen as a natural component of the axis going from Tehran to Lebanon, passing through Syria.

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