Shifting towards Iran?

At the forthcoming parliamentary poll in Iraq, the question is who will gain the upper hand – pro-Iranian Shias or pro-western forces? A pre-election analysis by Arnold Hottinger

By Arnold Hottinger

The Iraqi parliament has decided that parliamentary and local authority elections will take place this year on 12 May. This despite protests from Iraqi Sunnis, who believed the poll should be postponed until the huge numbers of Sunnis currently living in camps were able to return to their home towns.

The vast majority of those displaced are Sunnis. They were forced to flee by the war against "Islamic State" (IS). The refugees include former residents of Mosul, once the second-largest city in Iraq.

A further Sunni demand was that – apart from members of the official security forces, army and police – armed individuals should not be present at polling stations. With this, Sunnis are drawing attention to the fact that especially in places recaptured from IS, armed members of the "Popular Mobilisation Forces" (PMF) are also present alongside "regular" forces.

PMF units serve to bolster official state security forces in "liberated" areas. Official forces alone would be insufficient to gain control of the persistently chaotic conditions in former conflict zones. 

Sunni fears

Members of the PMF, most of them Shia Muslims, have been "officially sanctioned" in so far as they have been integrated into the army. They are paid by the government and are officially under the command of the prime minister. But as individual entities, they have their own commander and their own structures. This means that in practice, they are able to act independently and on their own initiative.

Many Sunnis are afraid of them. During the battles against IS, the Shia PMF tortured detainees and civilians. The Shias accused many Sunnis of belonging to IS and co-operating with the movement. Torture was used to extract such confessions.

Hashed al Shaabi Shia militia units in October 2016 at a military camp south of Mosul (photo: picture-alliance/Nur Photo/S. Backhaus)
Spearheaded the fight against IS: Members of the PMF, most of them Shia Muslims, have been "officially sanctioned" in so far as they have been integrated into the army. They are paid by the government and are officially under the command of the prime minister. But as individual entities, they have their own commander and their own structures. This means that in practice, they are able to act independently and on their own initiative

Summary executions also took place. The government in Baghdad tried to prevent such incidents. But there were so many cases, the Sunnis' fear of the PMF grew. Some Sunni parties declared that if elections were conducted in their regions under current conditions, this would amount to a "coup". By this, they meant a coup by armed Shias against defenceless Sunnis trapped in camps.

Former heroes

It is indeed the case that PMF militias are the most significant new factor in the approaching elections. To be sure, bearers of arms in Iraq are not allowed to vote or stand for election and PMF militias fall into this category. But among their commanders, those with political ambitions are sidestepping this rule by officially resigning from the militias they lead and forming their own "parties".

These leaders enjoy huge popularity in their home regions. For many of those who live there, they are heroes who courageously rose up in the summer of 2014 and defended Baghdad as well as southern areas of the country. At the time, the Iraqi army had collapsed and IS advanced on the capital from Mosul.Later, as occupied territories were recaptured, they were always there. They fought as far up as Mosul and beyond to Tel Afar. Some of their supporters and admirers emphasise the difference between them and the "politicians" and "army generals". Members of the latter groups, they say, did nothing but stuff their pockets with cash and run away from IS. There have also been intermittent accusations that they were to blame for the emergence and spread of IS.

The pro-Iranian "Conquest Alliance"

The extent of these militia leaders' political influence is unclear. But many observers assign them considerable significance. Nevertheless, not all groups under the PMF umbrella have developed political ambitions.

Many have responded to an appeal by senior Iraqi clerics, who say politics should be left to the politicians. One of these clerics is Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's top Ayatollah.

But the pro-Iranian militias, who pay more heed to Ali Khamenei in Tehran than to Sistani in Najaf, are pursuing political goals. Under the leadership of Hadi al-Ameri, they have formed a political alliance: the "Tahaluf al-Fatah", the Conquest Alliance.

One of its members is the Badr organisation led by Al-Ameri. Others include several pro-Iranian groups such as "Asa'ib Ahl al-Haqq" and "Kata'ib al-Imam Ali", known for their fanatical partisan support for Iran.

The "Citizen Alliance"

A further grouping that has thus far adhered to the same movement, has split off from the Conquest Alliance. This is the group originally formed by the cleric Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim. It used call itself the SCIRI ("Supreme Council of the Iraqi Revolution in Iran") and fought on the side of Iran in the Iran-Iraq war from 1980 to 1988.

Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim died in 2009. His son Ammar al-Hakim has now separated the group from Iran. He named it the "National Wisdom Movement" and built up his own alliance: the "Citizen Alliance".

Iraqi political parties are generally small. Often, they are basically made up of the supporters of individual influential figures. Alliances are therefore crucial. 238 parties are enrolled for the approaching elections. Of these, 143 have joined forces to form 27 different alliances, which have in turn registered for the poll. These alliances put up joint candidate lists. Voting is to take place in 18 of the nation's provinces. Each province forms its own electoral district.Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has formed his own alliance, which he calls the "Victory Alliance". The "victory" is a reference to the attrition of IS, achieved under his responsibility. The alliance comprises a large number of smaller Sunni and Shia groups, all of which want to profit from the prestige of the triumphant PM.

Maliki v. Abadi

The Abadi alliance is facing off an alliance led by former PM Nuri al-Maliki. Just as in earlier elections, his coalition is called the "State of Law".

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi (photo: Reuters)
Stable government by no means certain: despite his popularity following the successful campaign against the extremist militia Islamic State (IS), Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is unlikely to gain a parliamentary majority without entering a coalition. Rivals in the election include his predecessor Nuri al-Maliki and the former transport minister Hadi al-Amiri. The post of prime minister is reserved for a representative of the majority Shia population

In actual fact, both Abadi and Maliki are members of the same party, the Shia "Islamic Dawa Party" (Call). It once put up underground resistance to Saddam Hussein. Today however, Abadi and Maliki are rivals. Maliki sympathises with Iran and criticises the PM for his collaboration with the Americans. Members of the "Dawa" Party can choose freely between one or the other.

Muqtada al-Sadr as "left-wing" opposition

Another influential Shia, Muqtada al-Sadr, has refused to get involved in one of the big Shia alliances. Muqtada al-Sadr is the leader and idol of the large numbers of Shia residents of Sadr City, the north-eastern slum district of Baghdad. He is descended from a well-known family of scholars almost completely wiped out by Saddam Hussein.

During the time of the American occupation, he fought against the United States. His group has 34 deputies in parliament. Instead of merging with the Abadi or Maliki alliance, he sealed an alliance with the Iraqi Communists and other smaller left-wing groups.  He calls this the "Alliance of Revolutionaries".

This alliance was actually formed back in 2016. At that time, Muqtada al-Sadr and his "leftist forces" demonstrated against the corruption of Iraqi politicians. Some of the protesters managed to get inside the "Green Zone". This is a park-like complex with a palace built by Saddam Hussein. As occupying power, the Americans governed from here between 2003 and 2010. Later, for security reasons, the "Green Zone" became the hermetically-sealed location of the Iraqi parliament and foreign embassies.

Iraq is ranked 10th on the list of the world's most corrupt nations. But it is not Sadr's aim to fight corruption, but rather also the ways and means that senior positions in the civil service and state-run economy are allocated. Such posts are still distributed in accordance with denominational criteria.

So: Iraqi Shias, who once appeared as a joint force, are now split into five alliances competing with one another.In advance of the poll, when haggling over the formation of the alliances had already taken place, senior advisers to Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei came to Baghdad several times to speak to Iraqi Shia politicians. The Iranian emissaries were apparently trying to encourage the Shias to stick together and not compete with one another.

The goal was evidently to keep the PM position firmly in Shia hands. Both Maliki and Abadi are Shias. But the Iranian envoys were clearly unable to push through their agenda and unite the Shias. The rivalries between Shia leaders turned out to be insurmountable.

Two main Sunni alliances

The fragmentation of the Shias could result in them missing out on the chance to be able to form a coalition government as the strongest bloc. Their main challenge comes in the form of Iyad Allawi, a secular politician. He could join a coalition with other groups with no religious affiliation.

Former Iraqi premier Iyad Allawi (photo: Reuters)
Iyad Allawi seeks re-election: the former Iraqi premier openly favours a centralised form of government. In the 2010 elections he gained a slim majority but was unable to form a government for lack of willing coalition partners

The Sunnis have formed two main alliances: on the one hand, the current parliamentary speaker Salim al-Jabouri has sealed an alliance with the secularly-oriented Shia and former PM from the American era, Iyad Allawi. He in turn works together with secular Sunnis and Shias. A second Sunni alliance is led by Osama al-Nujaifi, the former governor of Mosul. This alliance also includes two more influential politicians from the province of Nineveh, where Mosul is located.

Allawi is seen as a proponent of a nation governed centrally from Iraq. Nujaifi is lobbying for a federal Iraq. Like the Kurds, he believes the Sunnis should also be able to form an autonomous entity within the country.

Allawi attained a slim majority in the 2010 elections, but was unable to form a government due to a lack of coalition partners. Maliki, who was then runner-up, managed to form a coalition government following some dogged manoeuvring.

Currently, with several promising alliances, the Shias stand a better chance of forming a coalition. The Sunnis, on the other hand, are only standing with two larger alliances. In addition, they have been weakened and damaged by the war against IS, which primarily took place in Sunni regions.The Kurdish political scene is also in deep crisis. In September last year, Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani carried out an "independence referendum" in the autonomous Iraqi region of Kurdistan. The central government and its army intervened. As a consequence, Kurds were forced to clear "contested areas" around the autonomous region of Kurdistan, including Kirkuk. Following this serious setback the two "historic" parties of Kurdistan faced sharp criticism, first and foremost from younger, new parties. These traditional parties, which have thus far dominated the Kurdish political scene, are the KDP ("Kurdish Democratic Party") and the PUK ("Patriotic Union of Kurdistan").

Both have their own armed unit of Peshmerga fighters. They have now joined forces and want to stand in the elections together, to defend their dominance to date. This although they are being held responsible for the loss of Kirkuk and other contested areas.

Toxic atmosphere in Kurdistan

Groups of "new" parties are now standing against them. Their influence is growing, also primarily due to increasing levels of resentment against the traditional parties. Kurdish coffers are empty, meaning neither civil servants nor Peshmerga fighters have received any wages for months. Demonstrations by state employees and other citizens demanding payment of their wages are put down by the police and Peshmerga fighters loyal to the traditional parties.

The ones to profit from this toxic atmosphere are the Kurdish opposition parties, first and foremost "Gorran" (Change), founded in 2009. Gorran is primarily active and successful in the southern regions of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Former president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, Massoud Barzani (photo: picture-alliance/Anadolu Agency)
Politically side-lined: despite significant resistance at home, Massoud Barzani – then president of the autonomous Iraqi region of Kurdistan – went ahead with the Kurdish referendum on independence on 25 September 2017. Although the huge majority of Kurds voted in favour of secession, the central government in Baghdad launched a military offensive in response, reclaiming nearly all the land occupied by Kurds that did not fall within the boundaries of the autonomous region. Barzani was forced to resign as a result

How all this will impact upon the elections and their outcome is currently highly uncertain. Massoud Barzani, president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region for 12 years, leader of the KDP and the "strong man" in northern parts of the country, stood down following the Iraqi army intervention. But he does not appear ready to exit politics for good.

After the voting, the alliance garnering the most ballots will be invited to negotiate with other alliances over the formation of a governing coalition, with which to achieve a parliamentary majority. The Shias will be divided up into radical pro-Iranian groups that align with the current "Fatah" alliance, and those forces oriented towards Iraq, sympathetic to the alliance led by PM Abadi.

Pro-Iran or with the U.S. and Saudi Arabia?

A third direction among Shias will be embodied by Muqtada al-Sadr. He has made it clear that he is willing to work together with all formations set on stamping out corruption. Regardless of religious affiliation. But it's unlikely that Sadr will receive the most votes, meaning he will also not be able to form a coalition government.

In Arab nations and the rest of the world, the focus is primarily on whether pro-Iranian or pro-Iraqi forces will be in power in the future. This depends on which side Iraq takes in the Saudi-Iranian supremacy struggle. And it also depends on whether the Iraqi army continues to work with the Americans or whether the Iranian Revolutionary Guards will be in charge in future.

The Iraqi system is pretty much set up to enable corruption to flourish. So Muqtada al-Sadr's demand for reforms is more than justified. Politicians in the "Green Zone" are so caught up with their own interests that they barely have the time to consider their nation. They themselves consume any available funds. Politicians and their patrons are primarily concerned with grabbing profitable positions within the administrative machine. In this game of relationships and connections, insights of an expert nature are becoming incidental.

Arnold Hottinger

© Journal21

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Arnold Hottinger is one of Europeʹs leading experts on the Middle East. Based in Beirut, Madrid and Nicosia, he worked as a correspondent for the Neuer Zuricher Zeitung for over thirty years. He has also published numerous books on the politics and culture of the Islamic world.