When Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi announced last week that he was entering into an electoral alliance with leaders of the country’s Shia-led militias, many questioned the rationale behind the gambit.
Many of Al-Abadi’s supporters voiced concerns that the Shia prime minister had taken a miscalculated risk and one that could cost him the popularity he gained after declaring victory over the Islamic State (IS) terror group and the blocking of the Iraqi Kurds’ bid for secession.
Al-Abadi sprung a pre-election surprise on many Iraqis on 14 January by declaring that he and the leaders of the Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF) had signed an electoral pact for parliamentary polls in the country on 12 May.
Al-Abadi is hoping to secure a second term in office in the elections, building on public approval of his government following the Iraqi security forces’ successes against IS terrorists and Kurdish separatism.
“This alliance will continue to maintain the victory and the sacrifices of the martyrs and wounded heroes who have battled for Iraq,” Al-Abadi boasted in a written statement published by his office.
However, the dramatic declaration of his “Iraq Victory Alliance” has shaken confidence in the prime minister, who had repeatedly said he would not allow the Shia militias to participate in the polls.
More importantly, Al-Abadi’s surprise move plunged the Shia political class into turmoil after Hadi Al-Amiri, leader of the powerful Badr Shia militia group and deputy commander of the PMF, announced his withdrawal from the new alliance less than 24 hours after he signed the pact with Al-Abadi.
Al-Amiri and other militia leaders said they had quit the alliance “for technical reasons” and that they were now forging their own bloc to contest the elections, putting the group on a collision course with Al-Abadi.
Al-Abadi will now have to look for a new alliance with other Shia groups in order to secure enough votes in the upcoming elections to ensure a second term.
Much will depend on what kind of compromise Al-Abadi will be able to make with his Shia rivals if he wants to make a deal over his premiership, a prospect which now seems increasingly uneasy.
Powerful Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, whose Sadrist Trend is the second-largest Shia group in Iraq’s parliament, blasted the alliance as “despicable” and warned that it paved the way for “deeper sectarianism” in Iraq.
Al-Sadr said in a statement that he had been asked by Al-Abadi to join the new “Iraq Victory Alliance” but had turned down the request because it was designed to “recycle the corrupt political class” in Iraq.
The surge of the Shia militias amid the fight against IS triggered Al-Sadr’s apprehension that these muscle-bound rivals could enter Iraq’s political arena and rival his own populist movement.
Another sign that the Shia coalition that has held key Iraqi Shia groups together since the fall of the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein may be fraying, came only one day before the declaration of the now defunct alliance.
Leaders of the Iraqi Dawa Party, which forms the backbone of the ruling Shia alliance, split over whether its Secretary-General Nouri Al-Maliki or Al-Abadi, a senior member of the party, should top its list of candidates in the vote.
As a result, the party decided to withdraw its participation in the elections, though its members will be allowed to stand as independent candidates or join other blocs.
Tensions inside the Shia political factions over the elections have been simmering for weeks. They boiled over as a result of the continued concentration of power in the hands of a few factions and their self-appointed leaders.
But while the Shia groups seem now to be heading towards a sharp split, they have remained focused on the country’s Sunni and Kurdish political factions, which are apparently taking advantage of the Shia bloc’s fragmentation.
Sunni lawmakers have made several attempts this month to postpone the elections, arguing that the war-torn country is not ready to hold them. They say the destruction in the country’s Sunni-majority cities and the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people will obstruct any free-and-fair elections in Iraq.
Kurdish lawmakers, whose parties are entangled in a simmering political crisis in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, gave their support to the Sunni MPs’ demands to postpone the elections.
The two main Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan Party (PUK), worry that new elections will give rise to opposition groups.
The failure of last year’s Kurdistan independence referendum is believed to have served as a watershed moment in the region’s politics that will benefit opposition parties vis-à-vis the KDP and the PUK.
However, over several sessions, Shia lawmakers in the country’s parliament showed their usual camaraderie and torpedoed attempts by Sunni and Kurdish MPs to postpone the elections.
The attempts were finally knocked down by Iraq’s Federal Court, which ruled on Sunday against postponing the elections. The ruling, requested by the government, will put off the disputes temporarily until the next major conflict.
Though the recent tensions seem to be just another political crisis since Saddam’s ouster in 2003, the present electoral conflict is certainly rooted in the flawed government system that was empowered by the US occupation and has been insufficiently prepared to meet the political challenges shaping the new era in Iraq.
Iraq’s ethno-sectarian electoral system has been the main obstacle to both its democratisation and its stability. Since Saddam’s fall, all the elections in the country have produced dysfunctional parliaments and fragile “coalition” governments crippled by communal divisions and power struggles.
The further bad news is that Iraq’s disputes have been inviting outside interference, especially from Iran and the United States, which have developed the habit of meddling in the country’s affairs.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, Iraq’s latest electoral standoff has been on the radar screens of both Tehran and Washington, which have been vying for influence to keep Iraq as part of their own strategic orbits.
Iran has dispatched its point man in Iraq, general Qassem Suleimani, to Baghdad to try to broker an electoral deal between the Shia factions and hold them together in a new ruling coalition.
Iraqi media reports have suggested that Suleimani, who heads the Al-Quds Force, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps responsible for foreign operations, was behind the bid to form the “Iraq Victory Alliance” in an attempt to bring the Iran-backed militias into the Shia political mainstream.
The United States, meanwhile, has put its weight behind Al-Abadi’s government and has urged the parties to hold elections on 12 May as planned. The US Embassy in Baghdad criticised calls to postpone the vote as “a dangerous precedent that could bring about the downfall of Iraq’s democracy”.
Washington has sent Brett McGurk, the special presidential envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat IS, to show support for Al-Abadi and to try to convince the Iraqi Kurds and Sunnis to drop their attempts to delay the vote.
Washington has also offered to provide assistance to help ensure that all Iraqi voices are heard and counted, including the approximately 2.6 million Iraqis who remain displaced from their homes in the liberated areas.
Why are the two countries so keen to intervene? The answer seems to lie in Iraq’s next parliamentary elections. Many believe the ballot could ruffle political feathers both inside and outside Iraq.
As countries that have been regularly seeking to shape Iraq’s politics, Iran and the United States will certainly want to affect the outcome of the crucial ballot in order to expand their influence in Iraq’s domestic politics and serve their regional interests.
Together with the country’s communal rifts, this is perhaps what makes Iraq’s next elections so important for all concerned.
*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly