Taking sides in the Iraqi elections

Salah Nasrawi , Friday 29 Oct 2021

Some Iraqis think outside powers are intervening in the fallout from the country’s elections, with this having a polarising effect

Taking sides in the Iraqi elections
Security forces prevent protesters denouncing election results from storming the Electoral Commission building during a demonstration in Basra (photo: AP)

The ongoing elections crisis in Iraq has raised concerns about how outsiders have become de facto participants in the country’s domestic policies, especially by stepping into efforts to reshape the political system after the recent parliamentary elections.

Though foreign attempts to interfere in Iraq’s elections cannot be overtly seen, they have been widely noticed through bids to manage and balance outsiders’ interests in the country’s domestic politics, including in choosing a new prime minister.

With many disillusioned groups in Iraq continuing to dispute the vote’s results and with some alleging foreign intervention in the election, there are reasons to worry about further complications in Iraq’s troubled politics sparked by unwarranted or ill-advised meddling.

The EU has joined the UN Security Council in deploring the scepticism about the election results. While the UN body described the vote as “technically sound,” the EU said “voters were able to freely express their will.”

But several hundred people have been protesting against “fraud” in the parliamentary elections on a Baghdad street leading to the entrance of the Green Zone, home to the US embassy, other diplomatic missions, and government offices.

The protesters, mostly supporters of the Al-Fatah List, the political wing of an alliance which brings together pro-Iran Shia militias and factions, have been demanding a recount of votes they claim have been tampered with.

The alliance, which was the second-largest bloc in the last Iraqi parliament with 48 seats, has emerged as the biggest loser in the recent elections with only around 15 seats in the new one.

Its main rival, the Sadrists, a bloc led by cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, maintained the most seats in parliament and appeared to have increased its seats in the 329-member assembly from 54 in 2018 to more than 70.

Spokespersons for the Al-Fatah List have denounced the UN officials responsible for monitoring the elections and helping to prevent voter fraud. They have also accused the US, Britain, and the UAE of interfering in the elections.

Iraq’s Higher Independent Electoral Commission said that a manual recount of the votes from the elections had showed almost no difference from the initial tally, clearing the way for the country’s supreme court to ratify the results and for the political parties to form a new government.

But as the country grapples with the daunting task of resolving the wrangle over the election results and gets ready for the new government, dissatisfaction remains and threatens to explode and subvert the peaceful transfer of power.

While some other issues also remain difficult, fear of foreign meddling in influencing Iraq’s post-election politics is likely to complicate the formation of the next government.

Many foreign stakeholders, especially Iraq’s neighbours, are in the mix and seem to be hoping to shape the political conversation about the aftermath of the elections and see their interests prioritised.

Ahead of the ballot, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan received Speaker of the Iraqi Parliament Mohammad Al-Halbousi and leader of a rival list, Khamis Al-Khanjar, in a clear show of support for Iraq’s Sunni Muslim factions.

But one major factor in determining the impact of outsiders’ collusion remains the US-Iranian rivalry in Iraq and Washington and Tehran’s intriguing bids to keep themselves fully engaged in the beleaguered country as part of their larger power strategies in the region.

In each of Iraq’s elections since the ouster of the regime of former dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003, US and Iranian interests in Iraq have led to interference by the two countries in choosing a new prime minister, a post marked by competition from Iraq’s Shia groups.

The job is important because Iraq’s prime minister has overall control of the army, security forces, the government, and other key state institutions, as well as the budget and the country’s foreign relations.

Iran’s point man in Iraq, Al-Quds Force Commander Qassem Suleimani, who was killed by a US aerial attack last year, and top US diplomats have all in the past exercised pressure on Iraqi political groups to give or deny some Shia politicians the prestigious post.

At present, the focal point of the US-Iran conflict in Iraq is the future of the pro-Iran factions. While Iran is seeking to maintain and increase its influence in Iraq by investing in projects linked with loyal militias, the US is looking to weaken the paramilitary forces.

Iran has publicly welcomed the results of the Iraqi ballot, and Iranian foreign Ministry Spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said the elections were “an internal affair related to the Iraqi people and the parties there.”

But Iran was evidently shocked by the poor performance of its allies in the elections amid fears that their dwindling popularity could weaken its grip on Iraq and undermine its regional reach.

Western diplomats told Reuters that Iran dispatched the new leader of the Al-Quds Force, Esmail Qaani, to Baghdad when the initial results were released, apparently seeking a way to retain Tehran’s allies despite their dramatic loss of power.

Meanwhile, Iran’s official media continues to drum up the narrative of the Iraqi Shia militias about electoral “fraud” and their claims of US attempts to “obstruct” the victory of “Shia and resistance movements” in the elections in Iraq.   

The US is also clearly, though not publicly, showing a strong interest in the outcome of the Iraqi elections, which revealed pro-Iran factions losing most of their seats in the new parliament.

While the White House congratulated the Iraqis on the “mostly peaceful elections” and voiced hopes for “a government that reflects the will of the Iraqi people,” the US media and commentators have heaped lavish praise on the elections as being “democratic”.

The US policymakers’ preference in the elections had been Al-Sadr and his movement, with the aim being to harm the campaign of the pro-Iran factions. Al-Sadr’s victory in the elections has reinforced their hopes that he will help to counter the influence of these groups and their militias in Iraq.

The US policymakers have resorted to the traditional spin of the US media in their efforts to portray Al-Sadr as a strong nationalist leader and Iraq’s saviour from Iran.

On the eve of the voting, a Washington Post headline read “Former US foe likely to emerge as kingmaker in Iraqi election — with tacit American backing.”

“After Iraqi Election, a Shia leader emerges as an Unlikely US Ally”, wrote the New York Times in a glaring headline three days later.

“Although still unpredictable, the cleric is consistently an Iraqi nationalist and now seems to be emerging as an arm’s-length American ally, helping the United States by preventing Iraq from tilting further into Iran’s axis,” it said.

Joining the chorus, prominent US political commentator Fareed Zakaria said that “Al-Sadr has come a long way from his days as a violent revolutionary to gradually assuming the role as a candy party boss.”

“The US once threatened to kill Muqtada Al-Sadr as his militia battled the occupying forces. Now, the powerful cleric is helping Washington by keeping Iran at bay,” Zakaria said on the US network CNN.

The US tilt to Al-Sadr may also have gone beyond rhetoric. On Thursday, the Saudi-owned Independent Arabia media outlet reported that Al-Sadr’s cousin Jaafar Al-Sadr, who is Iraq’s ambassador to the UK, had made a secret visit Washington to discuss post-election arrangements in Iraq.       

Obviously, such a clear preference by the US and its allies is aimed at playing a significant role in influencing debates about the formation of the new Iraqi government and promoting a shift in the country’s domestic politics.

But it is not clear whether such engagement can shape developments on the ground in Iraq the way policymakers in Washington and in some European and Middle Eastern capitals would like in their rooting for a friendly new prime minister in Iraq and the curbing of Iran’s influence in the country.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 October, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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