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Can a Shiite Cleric Pull Iraq Out of the Sectarian Trap?

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Three years earlier, when demagogues loyal to Mr. Sadr were exhorting vigilante attacks on men seen as gay, the pairing would have been unthinkable. Back then, Iraq was riven by difference — the sectarian-hued struggle between the Islamic State, which purported to speak for the Sunnis, and the governments led by Shiite Islamists, who claimed to represent the Shiite majority that had been oppressed under Mr. Saddam.

At the Baghdad Cultural Center, adjacent to the Qishleh Gardens, smiling volunteers from Mr. Sadr’s organization distributed fliers with his pronouncements. “Our new goal is to start an independent technocratic government,” said Majid Hamid, a 26-year-old volunteer. “We have no problem with anyone who is Iraqi.” The movement’s emphasis is now on civic questions.

After more than a decade of dominance by Islamist Shiite movements, competitors for power can no longer meaningfully distinguish themselves by their sectarian identity. Self-styled religious parties have been implicated in every major graft scandal, including the mishandling of oil revenue and defense contracts.

In early May, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most revered cleric in the country, took the unprecedented step of declaring that true believers must not vote along sectarian lines and reminded voters that the clergy has not endorsed any party.

The biggest transformation of all has come during the fight against the Islamic State, which united all manner of Iraqis against nihilist fundamentalists: Shiite and Sunni, Kurd and Arab, Muslim and Christian, religious and secular. Every major electoral faction includes a mix of Iraqis, and the ideas of nationalism and secularism are slowly returning to the Iraqi political sphere.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who has roots in the secretive Shiite Islamist Dawa Party, has positioned himself as a nation-builder who thwarted challenges from Sunni supremacists and Kurdish separatists but is willing to accept any patriot as a member of his coalition. Even the most militant Shiite militias have included Sunni partners in their electoral coalitions, including the Fatah Alliance, led by Iran’s fearsome ally, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

Mr. Sadr has ordered his followers to support the idea of a secular, nationalist government run by “technocrats,” experts who are not career politicians and supposedly will be able to solve Iraq’s ills. He touts the importance of the rule of law and civilian power.

In a series of interviews with politicians, analysts, fighters and citizens, I repeatedly heard that a broad range of Iraqis believe they are at the beginning of a “nationalist moment,”

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https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/11/opinion/moktada-al-sadr-iraq.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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