1. Home
  2. Middle East and North Africa
  3. Iraq

Sectarian tension ahead of polls threatens “humanitarian crisis” - analysts

[Iraq] A man casts his vote in Baghdad in the October 15 2005 referendum on Iraq's new constitution. [Date picture taken: 10/15/2005]
There was a higher than expected turnout in many areas (Afif Sarhan/IRIN)

A government move to exclude a number of prominent Sunni candidates from national parliamentary elections on 7 March could re-ignite sectarian violence and create a new humanitarian crisis in the war-torn country, according to some analysts.

“Iraq is on the verge of another humanitarian crisis if the current political situation continues to worsen between the political parties or between Sunnis and Shia over participation in the coming elections,” Mohammed Abdul-Aziz Jassim, a political sciences lecturer at the University of Anbar, told IRIN.

“Almost all Iraq’s humanitarian challenges since 2003 [when the US-led invasion began], such as displacement, poor public services and social problems, are the result of the political and sectarian strife that led to a deteriorated security situation,” he said.

In mid-January, a committee tasked by the government to prohibit former members of Saddam Hussein’s disbanded Baath Party from government jobs decided to exclude 511 Sunni and Shia candidates from the polls.

Although the majority of those on the list are reportedly Shia, they do not have the political clout or tribal standing that the barred Sunnis have, analysts say.

Sunnis are particularly angered that prominent Sunni lawmaker Salih Al-Mutlak is among those excluded. Al-Mutlak’s involvement in the political process was instrumental in turning the tide against the insurgency, say analysts.

Jassim warned that banning candidates “will widen this [sectarian] divide as each party will rely on violence to control as much as it can on the ground if it is excluded from the elections”.

Maan Khudhir Ali, a Baghdad-based analyst and researcher on social affairs at the University of al-Mustansiriyah, said the exclusion would “weaken the next government” as it would devote much of its time to appeasing aggrieved parties.

"If the exclusion goes as scheduled before the elections the next government's priority will be how to find ways to satisfy the angry political parties and not how to find the best ways to offer services and help displaced families return to their homes," Ali said.

Photo: DVIC
An Iraqi policeman stands guard at a checkpoint. Analysts warn of increased sectarian violence if some candidates are barred from participation in upcoming elections

Humanitarian challenges

Since 2003, Iraq has faced a number of humanitarian challenges, key of which has been the millions of people forced to flee their homes, whether within the country as internally displaced persons (IDPs) or abroad as refugees to neighbouring countries such as Syria and Jordan.

The vast majority of displacement occurred after the 2006 bombings of a Shia shrine by Sunni militants, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

The country has been ravaged by bouts of sectarian violence ever since, which has had a debilitating impact on the country’s infrastructure and efforts to rebuild it; the provision of basic services and access to them; and the state-run food distribution food system, which has deteriorated because of insecurity, poor management and corruption.

As violence began to ebb in early 2008, many IDPs and refugees returned to their areas of origin. According to UNHCR, some 300,000 IDPS and 80,000 refugees returned in 2008 and 2009.

International aid agencies and local and foreign NGOs also began resuming work in Iraq after insecurity had forced them to suspend their operations.

“We have been building on this little security development Iraq has witnessed over the past short period of time, which in turn has a positive effect in the humanitarian field,” a representative of a foreign NGO who recently resumed work in five provinces said on condition of anonymity.

“Any deterioration in the political arena could pose a major blow to these developments and bring a setback to our efforts in helping needy people,” the aid worker said.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

Share this article
Join the discussion

Right now, we’re working with contributors on the ground in Ukraine and in neighbouring countries to tell the stories of people enduring and responding to a rapidly evolving humanitarian crisis.

We’re documenting the threats to humanitarian response in the country and providing a platform for those bearing the brunt of the invasion. Our goal is to bring you the truth at a time when disinformation is rampant. 

But while much of the world’s focus may be on Ukraine, we are continuing our reporting on myriad other humanitarian disasters – from Haiti to the Sahel to Afghanistan to Myanmar. We’ve been covering humanitarian crises for more than 25 years, and our journalism has always been free, accessible for all, and – most importantly – balanced. 

You can support our journalism from just $5 a month, and every contribution will go towards our mission. 

Support The New Humanitarian today.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian

Support our journalism and become more involved in our community. Help us deliver informative, accessible, independent journalism that you can trust and provides accountability to the millions of people affected by crises worldwide.