Shia Islamist parties have emerged as major political actors in Iraq after the U.S. invasion and the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. They have played key roles in shaping constitutional and political processes and the internal dynamics of Iraqi politics. The oldest of these parties is the Dawa Party, most of whose leaders returned home in 2003 after years in exile. Between 2005 and 2018, three of its leaders, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, Nouri al-Maliki, and Haider al-Abadi, assumed the position of prime minister. As Dawa moved from opposition into power, its commitment to building an Islamic state waned and its priorities were shaped increasingly by the challenges of governance and the pursuit of clientelist politics.
Three factors accounted for this transformation. The first was the emergence of ethnosectarianism as the dominant framework for political representation and mobilization. This forced Dawa to focus on questions of identity rather than ideology. Second were electoral demands, which led the party to seek a broader constituency by reinventing its political brand and employing political patronage. And third was the rentier nature of the Iraqi state, with oil revenues entrenching factional politics that revolved around the distribution of spoils rather than competition among ideologies and political programs.
From Ideology to Identity Politics
The downfall of Iraq’s Baath regime led to a widening of the sectarian divide between the Sunni and Shia communities. This pushed Shia Islamists to emphasize their communal identities over their ideological commonalities with Sunni Islamists. Dawa’s alliances exemplified the outcome of such behavior. Most often the party allied itself with competing Shia groups, such as the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) or the Sadrist Movement, or even with non-Islamist Shia groups such as Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress, while avoiding partnerships with Sunni Islamist groups such as the Iraqi Islamic Party.
However, this turn to communal politics did not occur suddenly. It was the consequence of several transformations, including a growing sense of Shia identity during the party’s time in exile. Initially, Dawa challenged the secular state and secular ideologies, advocating for religion’s central role in the sociopolitical order. Its activists were inspired by Sunni Islamist organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hizb al-Tahrir, as well as by the writings of Sunni Islamist ideologues such as Sayyid Qutb, Hassan al-Banna, and Abu al-Aala al-Mawdudi. The ultimate objective for both Sunni and Shia Islamists was the formation of an Islamic state, which each group interpreted in its own way.1
However, Dawa’s founders, being pious Shia, many from clerical families, could not ignore the doctrinal particularities of Shiism, especially as they needed to legitimize themselves within their community. They sought to build a partnership with the Shia clergy in Najaf, the center of Shia religious learning, to secure more support. This was manifested in the crucial role played by Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, a Shia cleric who became Dawa’s patron and key ideologue. In his writings, Sadr tried to present Islam as an alternative to liberalism and communism, while asserting the role of Shia clergy in political leadership.
Iraqi Shia Islamist movements were greatly influenced by Iran’s revolution. Given that Islamism emphasizes religious over national or territorial identity, non-Iranian Islamists were able to identify with the Iranian Islamic state. This identification was reinforced by the Shia Islamists’ conflict with the Sunni-dominated regime in Iraq, particularly after its campaign of repression directed against them. The regime also targeted senior clerics such as Sadr, who enthusiastically supported Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s leadership.
Many Dawa members fled Iraq as a consequence, strengthening their affinity with a Shia sense of victimhood. In exile, they and members of the ISCI, then known as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, sought to win allies among non-Islamist groups, especially after the failure of the uprising against the Iraqi regime in 1991. They developed working relations with Kurdish nationalists, Sunni Islamists, and even liberals, among others. At the Iraqi opposition’s London conference in 2002, these groups agreed that a post–Saddam Hussein Iraq must be democratic and pluralistic.
Following the regime’s fall in 2003, the new balance of power mandated a shift from revolutionary Islamism to pragmatism. Shia Islamists had to cope with the reality of the U.S. occupation and accept that they could not shape Iraq’s new political rules on their own. U.S. policymakers and formerly exiled opposition groups embraced a vision of Iraq as being divided into ethnosectarian communities. This led them to focus on building a consensus among the communal elites to legitimize the new order. For Shia Islamists this was both attractive and constraining. It was attractive because some 60 percent of Iraq’s population is Shia, allowing Islamists to monopolize political representation of the country’s largest sectarian group; and constraining because it forced them into long processes of bargaining with other political representatives.
In 2005, Dawa, ISCI, and smaller Shia factions formed the United Iraqi Alliance, a coalition that won a majority in the assembly writing a new constitution. Together with Kurdish parties, they developed the foundations of a political system based not on building an Islamic state, but mainly on representing ethnic and religious communities within a pluralistic federal arrangement.
This aim was reflected in the new constitution. Article 1 described Iraq as “federal, independent . . . republican, representative, parliamentary, and democratic.” The word “Islamic” was not used. Regarding Islam’s role in legislation, Article 2 described it as the official religion of the state and a main source for laws—as opposed to the main source. Still, it was stipulated that no law could contradict the established provisions of Islam or the principles of democracy and basic freedoms. This was a rhetorical compromise for it failed to envision a case in which Islamic provisions challenged democracy and basic freedoms.
Article 2 stipulated that the “Constitution guarantees the Islamic identity of the majority of the Iraqi people and the full rights to freedom of religious belief and practice of all individuals such as Christians, Yezidis, and Mandaean Sabians.” For Shia Islamist parties, therefore, the step back from Islamist ideology was imposed by participation in a pluralist political system that required them to appeal to wider electorates than had previously been the case.
Electoral Politics and the Challenge of Governance
The move away from Islamist ideology was not easy for Iraqi Shia Islamists, for whom elaborating a theory of Islamic governance remained a subject of polemics. Over time, they became aware of the problems in the Iranian model and the unresolved tensions resulting from its adoption of two sources of legitimacy—religious authority and popular sovereignty. For Iraqi Islamists, there was also tension between their religious allegiance to Iran’s leadership and their Iraqi national identity. This divided Dawa in exile and continues to influence intra-Shia dynamics, as manifested in the current division within Dawa between the Maliki wing, which has grown closer to Iran and its allies, and the Abadi wing, which has pursued better ties with the West.
In an attempt to look beyond the Iranian model and the hegemony of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps over Shia Islamists, some party activists and ideologues began to reassess establishing an Islamic state. For example, the prominent Lebanese cleric Mohammed Mahdi Shams al-Din, who supported the Dawa Party in its early years, abandoned his calls for a state based on Islamic law and came to consider democracy the best governance model. However, due to a lack of serious intellectual renovation, Dawa was unable to develop a clear governing framework based on its foundational principles. As one observer of Iraqi Islamist movements put it, “[Dawa] accepted democratic mechanisms, yet not the philosophical justifications of democracy, which the party continued to consider ‘secular’ and ‘Western.’” Reflecting this dilemma, many members went to ask for permission from religious scholars before running in elections or accepting positions in the Iraqi government.2
Party leaders struggled to find a formula that could combine their ideological convictionsand their new role as politicians in a country divided communally. They grasped that adhering rigidly to ideology would hinder their efforts to acquire broader legitimacy, which was essential for their political survival. That explains why Maliki, who led the government between 2006 and 2014, and Abadi, the prime minister between 2014 and 2018, ran their electoral campaigns through coalitions that included non-Islamist allies and adopted a nationalistic tone.
At the same time, given Iraq’s sectarian divisions and their impact on political constituencies, both men were unwilling to abandon Islamism and partisan identification, an important means of sustaining their original constituencies. They alternated between Islamist and nationalist rhetoric depending on the political setting. This demonstrated pragmatism, but also indicated the occasional irreconcilability between ideological identification and practical leadership. Even when heading competing coalitions in the 2018 parliamentary elections, Maliki and Abadi did not give up their Dawa membership.
Dawa was better positioned than other Islamist groups to adapt to the new politics in Iraq because it was not associated with a specific clerical family—as were the ISCI and the Sadrist Movement—nor was it religiously guided by a single cleric. As a result, it enjoyed more flexibility to rebrand itself politically and attract different electorates. However, this was not always a strength. Lacking ideological clarity and an identifiable social base, the party grew more dependent on the post of prime minister and the power invested in it. Maliki and Abadi portrayed themselves as state-builders, expanding networks of loyalists in the state. Maliki mastered this game by centralizing authority in his office and creating parallel institutions, or appointing senior officials in an acting capacity to circumvent the slow parliamentary procedures. Abadi did the same, though on a smaller scale.
However, the party’s agenda was not necessarily identical to that of the prime minister. Relations were strained between some Dawa leaders and Maliki when the latter relied more on his personal surrogates than on them. This was one reason why leading party members abandoned Maliki in his struggle to remain prime minister after the 2014 elections in which his State of Law Coalition won the largest number of seats. Realizing that Maliki’s chances of remaining in office were limited, those members presented Abadi as an alternative. Such a shift was intended to keep the party in control of the premiership, although it exposed its lack of a strong collective agenda.
After that, Dawa became increasingly divided between a Maliki and an Abadi faction. While the division was largely shaped by personal rivalries, it was also influenced by U.S.-Iranian competition in Iraq. Seen as a departure from Maliki’s authoritarian style, Abadi received Washington’s support during the conflict against the self-proclaimed Islamic State group, adopting what many viewed as a nonsectarian approach and occasionally opposing the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), an umbrella group for mainly Iran-backed paramilitaries that fought alongside Iraqi security forces. In turn, Maliki, who helped establish the PMF, grew closer to Iran and more suspicious of the Americans. He blamed them for the failure to deter the Islamic State before its takeover of Mosul and other Sunni cities in 2014.3
Following the parliamentary elections of 2018, Maliki’s State of Law Coalition allied itself with the Fatah Coalition, the PMF’s political wing. The Abadi-led Nasr Coalition, in turn, allied itself with the Shia clerics Muqtada al-Sadr and Ammar al-Hakim, the leader of the Hikma current. With that divide, Dawa ceased acting as a unified party. It allowed members to vote for electoral lists without using the party name, while offering vague promises to reunite Dawa after the election. This arrangement signaled that the party had lost its political coherence and had been damaged by increasingly personalized and clientelist politics. It also mirrored the absence of a broad constituency independent from Dawa’s prime ministers. Dominated by old members whose political experiences were mostly shaped in exile, the party failed to rejuvenate itself and expand its base.
The Rise of Rentier Islamism
Today, Iraqi politics is characterized by formal democratic institutions that are overshadowed by patronage politics and extralegal practices. This has been largely shaped by the nature of Iraq’s economy, in which reliance on oil revenues has led to competition over spoils, creating a rentier political culture. Therefore, it is possible to speak of rentier Islamism in which patronage has largely displaced ideology in shaping the political behavior of Islamist parties.
During his years as prime minister, Maliki employed patronage as an essential tool of governance. For example, he revived the Baath regime’s policy of winning over the loyalty of tribal chieftains through material rewards, by forming what came to be known as “support councils” in southern cities. While the declared aim of these tribal gatherings was to secure local backing for security, Maliki used them to broaden his electoral base. The 2015 budget of Maliki’s government allocated 380 million Iraqi dinars (equivalent to $282 million today) to fund these councils, including monthly stipends to their members. In contrast, Maliki’s refusal to continue funding some of the Sunni tribal Awakening Councils that had fought against al-Qaeda weakened those groups and facilitated the reemergence of jihadists in Sunni areas.
Similarly, Maliki’s entourage, which included members of his family, developed a network of partnerships with several interest groups and businessmen. In doing so, they exploited the power invested in the prime minister’s office, which under Maliki became stronger than other state institutions. The same can be said of the Office of the Commander in Chief, which critics regarded as an illegitimate tool by Maliki to affirm his personal power over the military and undermine the responsibilities of the Defense Ministry. That is why Abadi, in the context of his rivalry with Maliki, abolished the office when he became prime minister. Whereas Maliki bolstered his personal loyalists at the expense of elements in the Dawa leadership, Abadi allied with certain party associates, exacerbating his relations with other members who felt excluded. Following Dawa’s failure to keep the premiership, the subsequent dissatisfaction led three leading members to issue a statement accusing Abadi of having divided the party.
Dawa, which lacks significant public support, also used other means to build up its constituency. Among the public institutions employed for patronage purposes were the Institution of Political Prisoners and the Martyrs Institution, both led or staffed by figures close to the party. Their main function was to validate compensation applications from those imprisoned by the former Baath regime, or those whose family members the regime had executed. Yet the beneficiaries were expanded to include even people who had fled Iraq. Dawa parliamentarians helped pass laws allowing the excessive scope of the compensation.
Dawa’s use of patronage politics has created networks of clients connected by interests, not a cohesive ideological project. What distinguished Dawa from other parties engaged in similar politics was the absence of a party figure who acted as ultimate patron. Maliki’s and Abadi’s power derived primarily from the position of prime minister. That is why after losing the office, a post-ideological Dawa may find that its political relevance has declined more than that of any other group.
Conclusion: Not Dead, but Dying
In October 2018, after thirteen years during which a Dawa member was prime minister, Adel Abdel Mahdi, formerly of the ISCI, was appointed to head the government. Today, Dawa is divided and has no unified vision about its purpose and objectives. The party is not dead, but it is dying. Most of its leaders are aging, and it is barely attracting a new generation of activists. The ideal of an Islamic state is no longer appealing among Iraqi Shia, at least in the way it was during the 1960s and 1970s. Dawa’s backing is concentrated in sectors of the middle class and post-2003 state employees, but it is facing strong competition from other parties among these sectors. With Dawa having lost the advantages of incumbency and now deeply divided, the party’s base will shrink further.
However, this situation also reflects a crisis of political organizations formed in times of grand narratives and ideologies. As such organizations enter a political process shaped by electoral exigencies, they find it difficult to adapt their original ideology—and brand—to new political realities. These parties end up losing their ideological appeal, while depending more on clientelism to survive, which requires remaining in a position of responsibility to provide favors. With the existence of groups representing new generations of Islamists, including the Sadrists and PMF factions, Dawa’s Islamism has become a fading legacy that is unable to mobilize a large number of followers and provide them with a strong sense of mission.
However, Dawa’s crisis is not separate from the challenges other Islamist groups are facing. The highly dysfunctional and corrupt system of governing, in which Islamist parties enjoyed a dominant position, has reduced their appeal. Protests, which the country has been witnessing since 2015, have revealed an increasing public anger and a growing disillusionment with the ruling elite. They have indicated that political mobilization has been shifting from ideology- and identity-centered issues to those emphasizing socioeconomic demands. In response, Shia Islamists have become more divided, and some have appeared more willing to resort to coercive measures in order to protect their power and networks of interests. In the long run, this response could further delegitimize these parties, allowing alternative dynamics of mobilization and opposing political discourses to gain more support in the street.
1 Conversation with Abdul Jabbar al-Rifai, a Shia intellectual and former member of the Dawa Party, Beirut, January 20, 2019.
2 Informal discussion by the author with a former Dawa member, Washington, DC, October 18, 2015.
3 Author interview with former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, Baghdad, February 2017.