Iraqi Elections: The Emergence of a True Iraqi National Identity

The regional elections in Iraq took place in January in a much hoped for atmosphere of peace and security. The results will begin to show whether Iraq remains a patchwork of conflicting groups, or whether progress is being made to draw the country together and develop a sense of national unity.

By Daniel Jeffery, International Security Studies Department

The regional elections that were held in Iraq at the end of January represented more than a victory for the democratic experiment in Iraq. Indeed, from a Coalition perspective, they will act as an important yardstick by which to measure the potential success and applicability of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) as it stands. If the elections had been a failure and marred by violence, then an extension would have been needed. However as the elections were successful and peaceful, the SOFA has a greater chance of being adhered to as it stands. Either way, President Obama will be watching very closely so as to be able to keep to his pledge of ‘responsible withdrawal’ from Iraq. As important as this is, the outcome of the elections will also act as a critical indicator of the future path of Iraqi identity as the religious and secular parties went to the polls on 31 January.

Forging an Iraqi Identity: A Brutal History

The notion of Iraqi identity is a complex and interwoven one that politically-motivated manipulation has prevented from settling into a firm concept . Since the creation of Iraq under the British mandate, Iraqi heads of state have found it particularly difficult to build ‘a modern state out of [the] patchwork of conflicting tribes, sects, and ethnic religious groups’.[1] It is this ‘patchwork’ of identities that has meant that a true national identity has been left wanting. King Faisal attempted to frame Iraqi identity in terms of something greater than its geographical location during the 1920’s and was, to a limited extent, successful in creating a sense of unified character, thanks to an intensive institution building programme. However, this was based around the notion of Pan-Arabism rather than an actual Iraqi national identity.

With the rise of the infamous Ba’athist party came its own brand of pseudo Pan-Arabism that led to a de-facto unified identity being forced, physically and ideationally, upon Iraqi society. This said, after the uprisings in the north and south of Iraq in the early 1990’s and the erosion of his power base, Saddam Hussein undertook a programme of re-tribalisation that had the effect of fragmenting the Iraqi populace. The effect of atomising Iraqi society whilst making it bow to the notion of an ‘Iraqi national identity’ meant that when L. Paul Bremer initiated his negligent ‘de-ba’athification’ policy as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, eroding the only structure that was holding Iraq together.

Indeed the ‘de-ba’athification’ process proved unrelentingly that Iraqi national identity, as perceived at the time, was no more than a facade as historical grievances along identity lines erupted to the surface after years of brutal suppression. The process was one of the core factors that fuelled the ‘insurgency on steroids’ and sectarian violence, the like of which had ‘only [been] seen in the Balkans’.[2] 

This, plus threatened reprisals by disintegrationist and irreconcilable groups against participation in the elections and the marginalisation of the Sunni Arabs in the drafting of the constitution, led to the elections of 2005 failing in their promise of inclusive democracy as the Shia parties dominated the elections that were, for all intents and purposes, decided along ethno-sectarian lines. Indeed the results of the 2005 elections sparked fears that Iraq was heading to a Tehran style theocracy rather than the democracy the Coalition envisaged.

Identity at a Crossroads

The fears of the Coalition in the wake of the 2005 elections were not realised as Iraq has veered away from an Iranian style system where the religious authorities can veto the wishes and actions of the state. With this said, the question remains as to whether or not the ballots to be returned from Iraq’s recent provincial elections will bring the country any closer to reflecting the inclusive democracy that was desired by the US-led Coalition.

Since the 2005 elections the Iraqi people have, by and large, become disenchanted with the religious groups that they elected to power. These parties have not been able to provide security or basic services on a consistent or effective basis and the allegations of corruption levied against them are rife. This has meant that their appeal has been slashed. Secular parties primarily based along nationalist lines are now beginning to emerge. These parties make up a significant opposition force. The Iraq that went to the poles on 31 January is not the same polarised, sectarian war ravaged Iraq that voted in 2005.

It is therefore conceivable that, the emergence of more serious nationalist and non-religious groups is the first sign of the development of a true national identity. Iraqis are voting for candidates who will provide services that benefit the whole of Iraqi society and not merely those candidates that represent their own particular identity interests be they religious or ethnic. These nationalist parties are, on the whole, untainted by corruption and are viewed as able to provide the basic necessities, such as electricity, security and running water. These are commitments that have been echoed by the Da’wa party which has been successful in stabilising the country to a large extent and achieving the SOFA agreement. Indeed, while Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Da’wa party, on the face of it, is a Shia Islamist party, his actions over the past eighteen months have led him to be seen as more of a national Arab leader than a sectarian representative.

The implications of this are that Iraqi identity is slowly evolving from the fragmented, unstable ‘patchwork’ of previous eras and is freely choosing, through elections and democracy, to become a much more unified concept., Professor Gareth Stansfield stated that Iraq needed to ‘divide and heal’.[3] This is to say, Iraq needs to split up along ethnic and sectarian identity lines with Kurdistan in the north, a Sunni centre and Shia south. With the rise in Iraqi identity along Arab lines any split would potentially be less severe and consequences less catastrophic. Indeed, to many, this is a natural and just way to solve the question of Kurdish autonomy. A complete Iraqi national identity would not be solely based on the notion of Arabism but would include the Kurds of northern Iraq.

However due to the historical nature of the resistance movement of the Kurds plus the relative autonomy they have enjoyed, on and off, since the first Gulf War, it would be unreasonable to expect an Iraqi identity that incorporates Kurdish ethnicity. Such a model would, for the foreseeable future anyway, be fragile and forced at best. For after Saddam Hussein came to power, the Kurds were subjected to attempted identity assimilation policies that they passionately resisted. To expect them to bow to an Iraqi national identity based around Arabism is perverse. What could be hoped for is a system of cooperation between Kurds and Arabs, rather than integration, that would lead to a stable Iraq. This however, is far easier said than done given the contentious, volatile and oil rich areas of Kirkuk and Mosul. Indeed during the January elections these contentious areas did not vote due to the hostile and unstable nature of their make up and their crucial strategic and economic importance. An election date is set to be announced only after the results of the January elections are known and a new picture of the Iraqi political landscape has emerged. Even though these elections in Iraq are regional, a positive swing towards the nationalist parties would provide a strong indication as to the direction of the general elections to be held in December 2009.

Despite the fact that the religious parties are unpopular, they will nevertheless most likely do better than expected in the elections. This is because they are comparatively well mobilised, well funded and astute with regards to running a political campaign, unlike a majority of the nationalist parties who are relatively inexperienced in the cut and thrust of election politics. Another factor that will affect the success of the nationalist parties is that the religious parties have started to reshape their rhetoric so as to mirror that of the nationalist parties. Prime Minister Maliki’s Da’wa party has pledged to increase public services and security, moving away from basing their policies primarily around the benefits of a particular identity (even though this remains an important part of their platform). The reason for this realignment of rhetoric is because the religious parties are concerned, and rightly so, that their policies are seen as inefficient and serving only the interests of their secular adherents rather than the country as a whole; in essence they are attempting to capitalise on the mood of the country.

Despite the lower than expected turnout on voting day, the outcome of the regional elections represents a pivotal moment in Iraq’s history and a yard stick for its future course. It is to be hoped that these elections will provide the ‘stitching’ from which a true Iraqi national identity, based along Arabism, could be weaved into the fabric of the state – thus rendering the ‘patchwork’ of Iraq more unified and more stable than could have been envisaged four years ago.


1. Kanan Makiya, Republic of Fear: The Politics of Modern Iraq, (London: University of California Press Ltd, 1998), p.150.

2. The RDS Military Interview with Lieutenant General Sir G.C.M Lamb by Bill Kincaid, 11 August 2008

3. Gareth Stansfield, ‘Divide and Heal’, Prospect (122, May 2006)

The views expressed above are the authors' own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.


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