With the defeat of ISIS in Iraq, the coalition of Iranian-backed militias called ‘Fateh Alliance’, formerly known as ‘Badr’ organization, and their affiliates ‘Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq’ and ‘Kataib Hizbullah’, stepped up their efforts to consolidate both their religious and political dominance in the country. When the prominent Shia cleric Al-Sayyid Al-Sistani, issued a call to arms Jihad Fatwa in 2014, the coalition established their religious leadership. Under the leadership of Hadi-al-Amri, they came second in the 2018 parliamentary elections securing 46 seats, as opposed to the 20 seats they won in the 2013 elections. Furthermore, ‘Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq’, led by Qais al-Khazali, secured 2 seats via its al-Sadiqoun bloc, thus increasing its tally to 15 seats. It would only be a matter of time before their political dominance would materialize.
However, the Fateh alliance lost much of its popularity as the October 2019 protests erupted. When young demonstrators cried against corruption and Iranian intervention in Iraqi politics, security forces, and parliamentary groups, including Fateh, ruthlessly killed more than 700 protestors escalating national rage and leading to the complete loss of confidence in Iraqi political parties.
In January 2020, the Alliance, supported by military factions that call themselves the ‘resistance’, managed to push the Iraqi parliament to approve a resolution on expelling U.S. troops from the country. Later that year these militias, under the pretext of combating the occupation, targeted embassies and diplomatic missions, killing civilians and fueling a state of chaos.
Opposing Fateh is the Sadrist Movement, which is currently the largest political power in the country. The Movement, and its militia, the Mahdy army, differ from the Fateh Alliance in that although both are closely connected to Iran, Sadrist is a religious movement born in Iraq at the hands of Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, the renowned Shiite leader. Fateh, on the other hand, is a political-military coalition that was formed in Iran and was initially funded, trained, equipped, and led by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, fighting on the Iranian side during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. The Sadrists launched their electoral campaign in a pursuit to win the majority of seats in the next parliament, enabling them to name the next Prime Minister.
This ambition to play kingmaker may, however, be challenged by the Fateh Alliance and the resistance groups who seem adamant on blocking the Sadrist’s ascension to power.
Stifling the Tishreen Uprising
The Tishreen uprising, driven by the youth of Iraq since 2003, revealed an unprecedented level of public awareness, a desire for political transformation, and surprisingly, a rejection of the increased Iranian influence. The young Iraqis, across the country and in the squares of Baghdad, protested corruption, rising unemployment, and foreign interference. They chanted for national unity and demanded that the Iraqi government be overthrown. The government and the Fateh Alliance, as well as their affiliates, threatened by the protests, wasted no time in coming down on the protestors, using live ammunition to kill protestors by the hundreds and using marksmen to target activists, like Hisham al-Hashimi and Ehab al-Wazni, who could mount a credible opposition in case they ran for elections.
Supporting Sunni Tribes
Neither Mohamed al-Halbousi, the speaker of the Iraqi parliament, nor Khamis al-Khanjar, leader of the Parliamentary Azm Alliance, had any notable political presence before 2018, as they each represented a tribal direction that was foreign to the prevalent national Sunni position. Now as the two prepare for the upcoming elections, they are working hard to boost their fortunes among Sunni voters in Sunni areas controlled by the Popular Mobilization Forces and Iran-aligned militias.
Despite rising tensions between Khanjar and Halbousi, they both compete to forge stronger alliances with Iranian-aligned Shia forces who in turn are offering their support. According to the U.S. Treasury Department, Khamis al-Khanjar is now a target to U.S. sanctions for bribing government officials and engaging in corruption at the expense of the Iraqi people, and according to the Sunni Iraqi politician Misha’an al-Juburi, Halbousi has met with General Qassim Soleimani several times, prior to his appointment to the parliament, to pledge his allegiance to Iran.
The new Iraqi electoral law is a complete departure from the old Sainte-Laguë method that was used to organize the 2018 elections. Instead of adopting one electoral district, as in the 2005 elections, or designating each of Iraq’s 18 governorates as a single district, like in the three subsequent elections, the new law divides Iraq into 83 smaller electoral districts, thus enabling local nominees to win their seats based solely on the number of votes they collect in their small cities and towns instead of relying on the complicated mathematical methods that made the entrance of independents to the parliament nearly impossible.
Although the new law represents an improvement compared to previous electoral laws, it is not expected to lead to significant change since successful political representation requires sufficient political participation and this may not be the case in this election, where a low voter turnout is expected as many have blatantly expressed a total loss of confidence in most candidates and their respective parties.
The findings of a qualitative public opinion research conducted recently by the National Democratic Institute (NDI), show that Iraqis are dissatisfied with the electoral process and are doubtful of the government’s ability to accountably oversee it. The findings also show that 86 percent of Iraqis believe that public protests, and not elections, are the best way to bring about change. Activists worry that a low turnout will give establishment parties, with their easy-to-mobilize patronage-funded bases, a chance to dominate the polls once again.
Voter Fraud, Special Voting, and Internally Displaced People
Hoshyar Abdullah, a member of the Iraqi parliament, predicts that “the upcoming elections will surpass their previous ones in terms of fraud,” believing that “votes will be plundered in very ingenious ways.”
This skepticism may be justified considering that while the Popular Mobilization Forces and their associated armed militias are collecting votes by flaunting their victory over the Islamic State, the internally displaced Iraqis, who are the real victims of this war, are either unable to vote at all or are manipulated to vote a certain way, being promised a return to their homes. This has also been reiterated by Amnesty International, which reported that thousands of displaced Iraqis, who are being prosecuted on flimsy charges tying them to the Islamic State, are coerced by pro-Iran forces to vote for a particular party or candidate, taking advantage of their desperation. In fact, both Khamis al-Khanjar and Mohamaed al-Halbousi have made return-home promises to displaced Iraqis in Jarf al-Sakhr and Mosul.
The climate of fear that the armed militias have created through their display of power and successive assassinations of political opponents prompted many parties and blocs to withdraw from the race. The Iraqi National Dialogue Front, the Iraqi Communist Party, and the Iraqi Podium, all liberal and civil blocs, have decided to withdraw from the electoral race because they felt that the environment is not favorable for holding free and just elections.
A very likely coalition to secure votes in the upcoming elections is the one which includes the Fateh Alliance, forces of the so-called resistance led by Hadi al-Ameri, and the Dawa party headed by Nouri al-Maliki. The biggest competition to this alliance is the Sadrist Movement which is perceived as a maverick in this election. Though it is highly expected that the Sadrist will win, it is still doubtful for them to play kingmaker and nominate a prime minister who is a Sadrist loyalist, provided the Fateh Alliance give their blessing. This fragile balance of power is likely to bring in a weak prime minister especially considering that the divisions between Sunnis and Kurds, and their failure to adopt a unified strategy, are not helping to balance the political equation in the country.
In a televised interview, Nouri al-Maliki, chairman of Dawa party, said he hopes the government system in Iraq changes from parliamentary to presidential. This change would result in a never-ending sectarian division while the country turns into a Militia Republic with him at the helm. Maliki seeks a presidency that enables him to take advantage of loyal armed militias, like Badr, to help him achieve his political agenda in the absence of liberal, civil, and national forces.
The upcoming elections are dominated by two forces, the armed Shiite militias, and the Sunni tribes. The clash between the two could facilitate further Iranian expansion into the country and allow Tehran to insert its Shia militias into the fabric of Iraq’s security establishment1 and consequently have control over almost 14 percent of the world's oil imports.
Simultaneously, appointing a fragile government will, no doubt, result in either an intra-Shiite collision between Sadrists, Fateh, and Maliki, or between the state and the angry masses who expected the demands they made in the Tishreen uprising to come to fruition but are very likely to be frustrated by the outcome of the elections.
Haitham Numan is a professor of public relations at the Gulf University in Bahrain, he is a systematic polling designer with long experience in public opinion and political media, with a Ph.D. in Mass Communication from Baghdad University. Follow him on Twitter @Haithamhnuman.
1 Eric Edelman (Author), Ray Takeyh, Revolution and Aftermath: Forging a New Strategy toward Iran, Hoover institution press, Stanford university, p123 https://csbaonline.org/about/events/coming-soon-revolution-and-aftermath-forging-a-new-strategy-toward-iran-by