- The Washington Times - Friday, March 26, 2004

BAGHDAD — As Iraq moves toward elections at year’s end, secular democrats are finding themselves outmaneuvered and outspent by religious groups with Islamist political agendas and extremist leanings.

Capitalizing on donations from followers and Islamic traditions that obscure the line between religion and politics, Islamic groups have put together impressive social programs, formed well-armed militias and established quasi-political organizations that are the envy of their secular rivals.

“The religious parties got a head start on everyone because when security descended into chaos [they were] the ones who provided some services,” said Feizal Istrabadi, a legal adviser to Adnan Pachachi, a moderate member of the Iraqi Governing Council.

“It has put those of us who have a different vision for Iraq, a more liberal vision for Iraq, behind the eight ball.”

Iraq’s religious political parties — which include the Dawa, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, Hezbollah, the Sadr Foundation and the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party — invest much zeal in their politicking.

Hassan al-Zergani, a propagandist for firebrand preacher Moqtada Sadr, for example, spends his time shuttling among mosques and markets, Shi’ite slums and middle-class neighborhoods, carrying the preacher’s message to a wide audience.

Naseer Kamel Chaderji, leader of the secular National Democratic Party, meanwhile, moves only between his well-guarded house, his well-guarded office and the impenetrable chambers of the Iraqi Governing Council, of which he is a member.

Nowhere is the contrast more evident than in Sadr City, the eastern Baghdad slum where 2 million Iraqi Shi’ites live amid the stench of raw sewage and rotting garbage. Here, the streets are adorned with posters bearing the faces of Shi’ite clerical politicians while liberal, mainstream politicians can be seen only on television.

“Iraq’s moderates are challenged,” said Barham Salih, prime minister of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of the two main Iraqi Kurdish parties. “They have a lack of resources, organization and — in some cases — leadership.”

Some religious hard-liners say Iraq’s secular parties lack presence because they have little popular support. An opinion poll by the Independent Institute for Administration and Society Studies in Iraq showed that 85 percent of Iraqis supported using Islamic law as a basis for a permanent constitution.

Others say the nonreligious moderates, many of them longtime exiles such as Ahmed Chalabi and Iyad Alawi, have no legitimacy among the masses who suffered under Saddam Hussein.

The moderate leaders “are either technocrats or elite people,” said Joost Hiltermann, a Middle East specialist at the International Crisis Group. “These are not the type of people used to pressing flesh and kissing babies.”

Secular leaders say they have begun building organizations by opening offices in different parts of the country and meeting with tribal leaders, women’s groups, clerics and university professors, but they recognize the challenge they face.

Organizing politically, the moderates say, takes a lot of time because most Iraqis have no concept of grass-roots political activity.

“Traditional politicking? Traditional for whom? Minnesota?” asked Mr. Istrabadi, the political adviser. “We’re in Baghdad.”

Some moderates take a more optimistic view. They say that even if Shi’ite parties take control of the government, they won’t impose stifling religious laws or clerical rule as in neighboring Iran and Saudi Arabia.

“What you see now is something temporary. When [Iraqis] have enough bread to eat and work, these religious parties will diminish,” said Hassan al-Sheik, a member of Mr. Chaderji’s National Democratic Party.

But Mr. Hiltermann was less certain. “Iraq was always a secular society,” he said. “Whether it can retain that is a matter of how much the Islamist parties will grow.”

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