Iraq's Iranian-backed militias soon in power?

Salah Nasrawi , Monday 2 Apr 2018

Iran-backed militias are likely to make big gains in Iraq’s upcoming elections, shaking up the country’s politics

Popular Mobilisation Forces
Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) march during a military parade in Daquq, nearby Kirkuk, Iraq August 5, 2017 (Photo: Reuters)

Five nights a week many Iraqis sit in front of their screens at home to watch a popular TV show that brings a critical approach to the Shia-led government of Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi right into their living rooms.

The programme, Kalam Wajih, or “Wajih’s Talk,” which draws some million viewers inside Iraq and in the Iraqi diaspora, calls attention to the political and social malignancy of the country’s endemic corruption and its effects on generations of Iraqis.

Devotees eagerly await to hear how the programme will address rocky Iraqi politics, with anticipation rising over whether or not sharp-tongued TV anchor Wajih Abbas will poke fun at the country’s ruling elites, seen as corrupt and hopelessly incompetent.

Since the fall of the regime of former dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iraqis have been used to Abbas’s brand of ground-breaking satire that uses mockery as a political tool directed at the ruling elite.

But his latest daily shows, aired on Al-Ahd satellite television, a Shia-backed channel, are particularly targeting Iraq’s political elites with caustic remarks ahead of crucial parliamentary elections in May.

Al-Ahd, a 24-hour network headquartered in Baghdad, serves as the propaganda organ of Asaib Ahl Al-Haq, a powerful Iran-backed Shia militia. Since its inception in 2009, Al-Ahd, dubbed part of the “resistance media,” has been promoting a message of support for “the despised and the underdog” in Iraq.

For weeks, the station has been broadcasting talk-shows and news items focusing on the country’s epidemic corruption and the government’s inability to provide basic services.

Among its daily broadcasts are news items on anti-government demonstrations across Iraq, in which angry protesters decry graft, mismanagement, poor service delivery and unemployment.

With the polls approaching, scenes of Iraqis in low income areas around Baghdad cutting highways and blocking entries into the capital have had a devastating impact on Shia politicians seeking re-election.

Pictures of crowds in the so-called slum belt heckling and throwing objects at politicians aspiring to be elected to the next parliament have been galvanising the public and are worrying signs for the ruling factions.

Iraq goes to the polls on 12 May to elect a new House of Representatives, the fifth since Saddam’s fall, with bleak electoral prospects. The beleaguered nation faces a woeful set of choices, as its communities remain sharply divided on ethnic and sectarian lines.

In January, the main Iranian-backed militias in the country announced plans to form a political coalition to run in the elections for the 329-seat parliament. The heads of several powerful militias banded together to form the Al-Fatah (conquest) Coalition, which is designed specifically to take on the ruling bloc of Al-Abadi in the balloting.

The new bloc, also hailed as the “Mujahideen (holy warriors) Coalition,” includes representatives from the Badr Organisation, the Asaib Ahl Al-Haq, the Kataib Hizbullah and other Shia militias that earlier battled the Islamic State (IS) terror group under the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) banner.

Though the government has decreed that the PMF units are part of the security forces, it is widely known that their fighters are still under the control of their political and ideological leaderships.

The PMF units, also known as Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi, were established in 2014 under a fatwa, or religious edict, from top Shia cleric Ayatollah Ali Sistani calling for national mobilisation against the IS terror group in Iraq.

They have gradually become an umbrella organisation for the Shia militia groups since then.

There are now an estimated 140,000 fighters under the PMF banners, and though active fighters are not officially allowed to run in the elections they can still cast their votes under Iraqi electoral laws.

But while the Shia militias wield enormous military power in Iraq, their political, economic and social clout is evidently also increasing. They are expected to try to continue to exist even after Iraq declared victory over IS and to turn into primarily political organisations.

This might explain the current aggressive election campaign being waged by the Shia militias’ media to target their political rivals and woo discontented or sceptical voters.

As the voter turnout in Iraq’s upcoming elections is expected to head towards a new low, anti-government propaganda will certainly matter. Many analysts believe that the militias’ coalition, one of the biggest electoral blocs, will make major gains.

Given how fast the dominoes are falling in the militias’ direction, the moment of their rise to power might soon be upon Iraq, with the prospect that the political surge of the paramilitary forces could turn Iraq’s fragile political process on its head.

A closer look at the rise of the Iraqi Shia militias, however, shows that they are using public discontent over the status quo and employing tactics similar to the activities of the populist political movements in Europe.

Like the European populists, the militias are trying to gather support from a large segment of the Iraqi Shia community who are disgruntled by the rampant corruption and inefficiency of their government.

The militias are showing a strong intention to turn into a mass Shia movement ahead of the May elections. By closing ranks on one electoral ticket, they are underscoring their unity in the face of the Shia political groups that have been in power since 2003.

In addition to the anti-corruption rhetoric that they use to gain political trust, they are presenting themselves as the only forces capable of defending Iraq’s Shias against the possible resurgence of IS terrorists and other threats.

This was clearly manifested on Abbas’s TV show on Saturday, when he lashed out at Al-Abadi after eight federal policemen were ambushed by IS terrorists on the Baghdad-Kirkuk highway and the group announced their execution hours later.

“If the army and federal police cannot protect [their members], the sacred PMF can,” roared Abbas, trumpeting the militias’ battlefield victories against IS over the last four years.

Unsurprisingly, this aggressive electioneering does not augur well for mainstream Shia politicians, who consider it to be a populist attempt to win favour as they face a tough re-election campaign.

Indeed, the mainstream Shia parties are terrified by the prospect that the militias will get enough seats in the next parliament to put the next government at their mercy.

The militias’ bloc has put the traditional Shia alliance in disarray, and any new prime minister will certainly need the support of the militias in order to govern.

Not unexpectedly, the Iraqi Sunnis are also paying more attention to the consequences of the rise of the Iran-backed militias to power. Many Sunni leaders have openly questioned the loyalties of the Shia militias and voiced concerns that their empowerment will be a yet bigger threat to Iraq.

The problem does not seem to be only a domestic one. The United States and its Sunni Arab allies have voiced concerns about Iran’s plans to foster the militias’ political ambitions as part of Tehran’s efforts to increase its influence in the country.

US Defence Secretary James Mattis has accused Iran of funneling money into Iraq to influence the outcome of the elections. “That money is being used to sway candidates, to sway votes… not an insignificant amount of money, we believe, and it’s highly unhelpful,” Mattis said.

But even if some see the likely rise of the militias to power as a setback to Iraq’s fragile political process, they also realise that they cannot be simply shunted out from Iraq’s mainstream politics.

The Shia paramilitary groups’ increasing role in Iraq’s security apparatus has been producing qualitative shifts in the national polity. Thanks to their policy of inching along the political spectrum over time, they can no longer be dismissed as Iranian proxies or lawless militias.

Their anti-establishment election campaign subscribes to a more or less national vision of “the people” as the militias claim to be defending Iraq’s unity, protecting the country against terrorism and US interference, and pepping up the rhetoric against the corrupt political class.

It is hard to predict how the Shia militias will perform in the elections, but one thing is clear: they have certainly showed the scale of the anger in Iraq against the established order. 

* This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly

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