As Iraq Goes to the Polls, Iran Watches

Hussain Abdul-Hussain

Iraqi politicians might be unaware of it, but what looks like just another round of parliamentary elections might prove to be the most detrimental in the nation’s history. For the first time since the downfall of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003, Iraqis will go to the polls under the watchful eye of a dozen pro-Iran, heavily armed and battle-tested militias, thus threatening the integrity of the whole process. Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi called for a ban on militia members running for election, but later walked back his comments, most probably under pressure from Tehran, and for fear that he might be electorally outflanked by Shia radicals. Al Abadi seems unwilling to reach out to non-Shia blocs to offset the sway of Iran over any future cabinet that he might form, thus reducing the chances of distancing Baghdad from Tehran, and wasting another possible opportunity for bolstering Iraqi independence.

In this election, Iraqis have a wider variety of Shia politicians to choose from. Since the last election in 2014, the then ruling Islamic Daawa Party has splintered into two factions: The State of Law ticket, under ousted Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, and the Victory Alliance, under his former lieutenant and now archenemy Al Abadi. Hadi Ameri, the leader of the Shia militias that formed in the aftermath of the ISIS takeover in mid 2014, is heading the Fatah Coalition, and he might emerge as a third Shia key contender. Meanwhile, while not as influential as in past years, Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr could maintain a medium-size bloc, which might prove decisive in naming the prime minister, a Shia by political convention.

To be sure, the Sunnis of Iraq, at a disadvantage over the past 15 years when compared to their Shia and Kurdish peers, will also have more choices in the election. Since 2014, Sunni Iraqi leadership has been divided into two, mirroring the larger split in Sunni leadership across the region.

Led by former Shia Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular politician, and Sunni Speaker Salim Jubouri, the National Coalition is striving to replicate Allawi’s success in 2010, when he won the biggest number of seats, 91, but was prevented from forming a cabinet under pressure from both the US and Iran, who both gave a nod to the second winner, Maliki, with 89 seats. Allawi’s bloc enjoys the support of regional powers, first and foremost Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, and with support from Turkey, former speaker and now Vice President Usama Nujaifi, a Sunni, leads another coalition with a Sunni majority of candidates. Through his brother Atheel, the governor of the province of Nineveh during its fall to ISIS in 2014, Nujaifi enjoys robust support in this war-torn, predominantly Sunni area, with expectations that he might win the second-biggest largest Sunni bloc in parliament, albeit one that would probably stay away from the Allawi-Jbouri bloc, and might even join a Maliki coalition if the Shia former prime minister wins enough seats to get the call to form a cabinet.

Last but not least is the Kurdish bloc, once the second biggest in parliament but now facing internal strife and depletion in its leadership ranks. Since the death of former President Jalal Talabani, long-time chief of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, and since Masoud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party, has been weakened after holding the referendum on Kurdish independence last year, the Kurdish ticket that is usually formed of these two parties looks out of sync and susceptible to losing its lead among the Kurds to one headed by Barham Saleh, a former lieutenant of Talabani and former prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government. Saleh is secular, centrist and enjoys support in regional capitals as well as Washington. Should a situation arise where Allawi or a similar secular leads in the polls, Saleh would likely throw his support behind such a candidate for the premiership.

With the Kurds off balance, and with 2.1 million Sunnis still displaced (according to international organizations), Iraqi Shia have the advantage, not only of getting out the vote, but of using their non-state armed militias in suppressing dissent within the Shia community, and hence making sure that votes in Shia provinces and Baghdad go to the three main leading Shia contenders. Such a possibility might not only give Shia candidates an immeasurable advantage, but might also reduce the number of seats of Kurds and Sunnis in the 329-seat Council of Deputies.

So far, Washington and its regional allies seem accommodating of a second Al Abadi term. While not as close to Iran as Ameri or Maliki, Al Abadi is still close enough that his victory in the election should not be construed as a success for non-Iranian forces.

And while Al Abadi should be credited for managing a campaign that is by far less inflammatory than the anti-Sunni campaign that Maliki led in 2010 and 2014, the incumbent prime minister is still weak in standing up to Iranian attempts at changing the underpinnings of the Iraqi state and remaking it in the image of Iran. Signs of this have already been seen in his reversal on banning militia fighters from running for election and in his unwillingness to run on a platform that includes the disbanding of these militias, or at least their integration into regular government forces.

The rest of Al Abadi’s platform is full of contradictions: He wants to unleash market forces but promises government-funded welfare programs and subsidized housing. He endorses decentralization but spearheaded the effort to nip nascent Sunni autonomy in its bud while reacting violently to similar Kurdish schemes.

Ideally, America and its allies would want to see Allawi getting the call to form a coalition that would distance Iraq not only from Tehran, but from Iranian ideas of maintaining an unofficial state that keeps tabs on the official state. But given the odds, Washington and its allies might be forced to settle for Al Abadi, the lesser of evils, who will remain — as he is now — a de facto choice for the lack of a better alternative.

Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington bureau chief of Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai and a former visiting fellow at Chatham House in London.