From the outside, the contenders in Iraq’s parliamentary elections, now just weeks away, seem obvious.
The ruling Shia political groups that came to power after the fall of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated regime in 2003 look certain to secure the majority in the next parliament.
But in the international and regional diplomatic and intelligence parlours of the Middle East, a different game is playing out.
While Iran is seeking to keep its Shia friends in power in Iraq, the United States and its Sunni Arab allies are looking to see Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi retain his post and act as a bulwark against Tehran’s increasing influence in the country.
However, Iraq seems certain to remain caught in the crossfire between these protagonists. Al-Abadi, meanwhile, is also believed to lack the leadership capability to deliver as much as Washington and its allies might hope.
Though the election campaigns officially start in April, the political campaigning has been in full swing for weeks now, with candidates and faction leaders crisscrossing the country appealing for votes.
No reliable opinion polls have been available, but Iraq’s Iran-backed Shia militias are expected to make headway in the voting and look set to be key parts of the coming Shia governing coalition.
With concerns about a possible stalemate after the elections and political turmoil, the pressing question now is who will be Iraq’s next prime minister.
Like in many parliamentary systems, there will be no official candidate for premier on the ballot papers.
The newly elected MPs of Iraq’s House of Deputies will appoint whomever the largest bloc chooses for the job after the elections, and it is difficult to see anyone other than a Shia politician becoming prime minister.
A further reason for concern is that the elections remain vulnerable to foreign interference, especially by powers which feel they have stakes in Iraq and are ready to try their hands at swaying the elections.
There has already been ample evidence that Al-Abadi is a potential target for regional and international operations aiming to influence the elections.
Al-Abadi announced on 14 January that he would be leading a list called Al-Nasr, or the Victory Alliance, in the elections, describing this as a “cross-sectarian” list.
The declaration has pitted Al-Abadi against other Shia politicians also eyeing the post of prime minister, particularly the militia leaders who have refused to join his bloc.
The question arises of whether Al-Abadi is really Iraq’s best hope for the next four years and whether he can address the aspirations of the nearly 40 million Iraqis who have been living in misery for the past 15 years.
After the elections in 2014, Al-Abadi, then deputy speaker of the parliament, became prime minister. He was chosen to replace incumbent Nouri Al-Maliki as the preferred candidate of the Shia parliamentary coalition after an attempt by Al-Maliki to secure a third term in office was turned down under US pressure.
Al-Abadi took over at a time of deep national crisis, as Islamic State (IS) militants had taken over huge swathes of central and northern Iraq.
Kurds in the northern autonomous region of the country had also embarked on a campaign of self-determination. Both conflicts were blamed on Al-Maliki’s corruption, incompetence and divisive policies.
After his appointment as prime minister, Al-Abadi promised to change the tone of the government left behind by Al-Maliki and pledged to take the war-torn nation onto a new path of stability and reform.
He presented a six-point programme to the Iraqi parliament to beat back IS and suggested a wide-ranging development plan that included fighting corruption and rebuilding Iraq’s ailing public infrastructure.
The US Obama administration, which had ordered the US troop withdrawal from Iraq in 2010 and feared a backlash after the rise of IS, blamed Al-Maliki for the chaos in the country and gave its full backing to Al-Abadi.
Among the lavish descriptions heaped upon Al-Abadi by the US at the time were the epithets “moderate,” “clever,” “a politician by background,” “attractive abroad,” “very engaging,” “articulate” and “direct.”
He was praised for holding a PhD from the University of Manchester in the UK and for having worked as an industry adviser in the UK.
One of the most-mentioned skills on Al-Abadi’s resumé was that he had been in charge of the company servicing the lifts at the BBC’s Bush House in London, at the time the home of the BBC World Service.
The four years of Al-Abadi’s premiership, however, were marked by the continuous political and sectarian conflicts that had started with the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
However, some good things happened during Al-Abadi’s period in office, notably regarding IS and the separatism in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The Iraqi security forces succeeded in driving IS terrorists out from the Iraqi cities they had seized in 2014 and had held for more than three years.
They also confronted the Kurdistan Region’s attempts to break away from the rest of Iraq and retook control of territory claimed by its government.
However, these remain shaky victories, and they cannot be the only way for Al-Abadi to get enough votes to keep him in office as many supporters might hope.
The absence of far-reaching reforms under his premiership means that Iraq continues in the rut created during 15 years of impotent rule.
Corruption has remained a key problem under Al-Abadi’s rule, and the country’s oil industry is one of the most corrupt sectors in Iraq. The international NGO Transparency International last month named Iraq once again as one of the most corrupt countries in the world.
Last month, Al-Abadi failed to secure badly needed aid for reconstruction in Iraq and to restore basic services after donors meeting in Kuwait voiced concerns about widespread corruption in his government and about its inefficiency.
Security remains precarious as IS militants continue to carry out attacks on the country’s security forces, and militias and tribesmen take the law into their own hands in many parts of Iraq.
Al-Abadi has also failed to rebuild trust between the Iraqi government and the country’s Kurds after the botched Iraqi Kurdistan referendum on self-determination in September.
Iraq’s 2018 budget, which imposes strict austerity measures, was only passed by a divided parliament this month, and it still has not been ratified by the president. It was rejected by the International Monetary Fund, which oversees Iraq’s financial performance.
As Al-Abadi completes his term in office in May, he continues to disappoint. Iraq’s stability remains shabby, its path to the future unclear, and efforts to rectify these conditions remain too small to matter.
With Iran-backed militias forming one of the biggest blocs competing in the upcoming elections amid expectations that they will win, Al-Abadi will most certainly need the support of the militias to win a second term.
This means that Al-Abadi will be at the mercy of the militias and their Iranian backers in order to govern.
However, US pundits continue to push myopically for Al-Abadi’s re-election, billing him as “Washington’s man in Baghdad” and “an Iraqi nationalist who can reconcile Iraq’s ethnic and religious communities after the victories against IS.”
It is no longer a secret that Washington’s main goal in supporting Al-Abadi’s re-election is that it believes he can work with the United States to counter Iran’s influence in the country.
However, this is a gross miscalculation, if not an act of pure stupidity. Even with a sizable American troop presence in the country, thousands of contractors and huge political, economic and oil assets, the United States cannot be a match for Iran in Iraq.
Such an eventuality will pit the United States and Iran against each other in a high-stakes game that could evolve into direct conflict between Iranian proxy forces and American troops stationed in Iraq with unpredictable results.
Even Al-Abadi is aware of his vulnerability. In an interview with the US Time magazine last week, he pleaded with Tehran and Washington not to turn his country into a battlefield in any proxy conflict.
“Keep your differences away from Iraq,” he pleaded.
*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly