On the podium of a sweltering hotel ballroom recently, Sunni tribal leader Ahmed abu Risha stood alongside Interior Minister Jawad Bolani, a Shiite. Next to Bolani was a prominent Sunni religious leader, who stood beside a well-known Shiite human rights campaigner.
So it went, as Sunni and Shiite Muslims lined up together to announce the birth of a new political movement, the Iraqi Unity Alliance, which will run in elections planned for January on a platform of, yes, unity.
Periodically, a tribesman in the audience stood up and shouted slogans in support of the alliance’s theme. “Salute Iraq!” he cried, to murmurs of approval from the crowd. “God protect Iraq!”
As the election season gets underway, a new sense of nationalism is emerging to challenge the raw sectarianism that plunged Iraq into conflict a few years ago. Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, a Shiite, has led the way by recasting himself as a secularist and launching his State of Law coalition, which has reached out to Sunnis. But he will face tough competition for the votes of those who want to move past identity politics.
Another coalition is due to be launched, by Shiite secularist former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and Sunni leader Saleh Mutlak.
“We are sick and tired of talking about Sunni and Shiite alliances,” said Dhia Shakarchi, a prominent Shiite commentator who has joined the Unity Alliance. “We are Iraqis, and we care only about the interests of our country.”
That sense of unity between Sunni and Shiite Arabs, however, is still fragile. And it may not extend to the north, where ethnic Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens are all vying for power.
Even the Sunni extremist group Al Qaeda in Iraq appears to have recognized the new mood, shifting its tactics from the bombings against mostly Shiite mosques and markets that were aimed at reigniting sectarian strife. Instead, it is targeting the Iraqi state, with devastating attacks such as the one a week ago at the Ministry of Justice and the Baghdad provincial government headquarters.
U.S. officials say they believe Al Qaeda in Iraq, whose affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq, claimed responsibility for those attacks, has given up trying to provoke a new sectarian war because the strategy isn’t working.
“I don’t see anywhere near the attacks we’ve had previously on the population itself to foment sectarian violence, because I think Al Qaeda realizes that the population has no desire to go back to sectarian violence,” said Army Brig. Gen. Stephen Lanza, a U.S. military spokesman.
Rather, he said, attacks on government institutions are intended to undermine faith in the state itself, and destroy the spirit of national unity that is taking shape, as well as to derail the forthcoming elections.
On the streets, ordinary Iraqis vow they will never allow a return to the days of 2005-07, when Sunnis and Shiites were slaughtering one another and neighborhoods were polarized along sectarian lines.
Dhia abu Mohammed, 42, displays photographs of his three brothers, slain by Sunni militants in 2005, prominently over the doorway of his tea shop on the Tigris River. Although he acknowledges having felt a sense of satisfaction when Shiite death squads began targeting Sunnis at the time, those feelings have faded along with the photos.
“Enough Sunni and Shiite. Iraqis have learned their lesson and those days will never come back,” said Mohammed, who plans to vote for Maliki because of the role he believes the Iraqi leader has played in helping end the sectarian war. “I will vote for a just man, a wise man, and I don’t care if he is Shiite, Sunni or Kurdish.”
But efforts to truly declare the death of sectarianism still face serious psychological and institutional hurdles. Sunnis largely boycotted the national elections in 2005, and jobs in ministries and government departments were divvied up along sectarian lines, mostly to Shiites and Kurds.
That fueled a sense of resentment and exclusion among Sunnis.
Shiites seeking to preserve their privileges and Sunnis seeking to reassert themselves may have a hard time voting for candidates from the opposite sect, said Nabil Mohammed Salim, head of the strategic studies department at Baghdad University. Salim is affiliated with the Iraqi National Front, another new, mostly Sunni bloc campaigning on nationalist principles.
“It’s a problem for both Sunnis and Shiites. It’s not easy for any Sunni to vote for a Shiite or for a Shiite to vote for a Sunni,” he said.
Most Sunni Arabs now regard themselves as secularists, said political commentator Ibrahim Sumaidi, and they also recognize that they are in the minority, bound to lose out in a system based on sectarian quotas. They are hoping to redress the imbalances brought about by the 2005 elections by appealing to the non-sectarian instincts of many Iraqis.
But the so-called secularist vote will probably be split among several competing blocs, which could open the door to a government once again dominated by Shiite Islamists, Sumaidi said. “Then we could see sectarianism come back,” he said.
And the new spirit of nationalism expressed at events such as the Unity Alliance’s launch contains the seeds of another potential looming conflict, between Arabs and Kurds -- which the U.S. military has identified as the biggest threat to stability in Iraq.
A dispute between Arabs and Kurds over voting procedures in the contested province of Tamim, home to the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, is holding up passage of a new election law. If it is not resolved soon, officials warn, the vote may have to be postponed, which could in turn delay the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
The election logjam is just one indicator of a larger unresolved problem. Iraq’s Constitution promises the Kurds a referendum in the oil-rich province on whether it should be incorporated into the semiautonomous region of Kurdistan. Kirkuk’s minority Turkmens, as well as many Arabs, both Sunni and Shiite, oppose any redrawing of Tamim’s boundaries, especially one that would lead to the loss of Kirkuk.
The slogans of national unity being preached by the new political alliances refer as much to the status of Kirkuk as they do to the end of Sunni-Shiite differences, Salim said.
“Kirkuk is a part of Iraq, and nobody has the right to separate it,” he said. “If the Kurds insist on taking it, I’m afraid there’s going to be a very big confrontation between them and the Arabs.”
Times staff writer Caesar Ahmed contributed to this report.