The May 2018 general elections in Iraq primarily centered on three issues: Fighting rampant corruption of government agencies; Rehabilitating Iraq, estimated at 100 billion USD; Preserving the political and geographic integrity of Iraq as an Arab state in the face of growing Iranian influence and intervention – and to a lesser extent, separatist sentiments of the Iraqi Kurds.
Iraqi society and politics are shaped by the following: The core components of an Iraqi’s identity are ethnicity, religion, and tribalism. Sectarianism weakens sentiments of national unity; Relationships between and among communities are often hostile; Iraq is plagued with violence. Political assassinations, armed clashes between and among communities and general violence are part of everyday life.
Demographically Iraq is approximately 38.5 million people. Ethnically, there are three major communities: Arabs (75%) Kurds (17%) Turkmens (3%). Religiously about 65% are Shi’ite, 32% are Sunni, the rest are non-Muslims – particularity Christians and Yazidis – two minorities which are shrinking following growing violence and persecution. Iraq is young – sixty-percent of Iraqis are under the age of 25 – potentially a source of optimism. But will Iraq be able offer its young generation a promising future?
Muqtada al-Sadr, a 45-year old Shi’ite Cleric, political leader, and head of the paramilitary force Saraya al-Salam (The Peace Companies) won the election. His coalition, Saeroun (Marching) won 54 seats. Only a decade ago, al-Sadr was Iran’s most valuable subcontractor in Iraq. Under Iranian orders, his militia, then called Jaish al-Mahdi (the Messiah’s Army) spearheaded attacks on US forces in Iraq. In 2018 al-Sadr’s campaign focused on limiting Iran’s intervention in Iraq, fighting corruption and, the disarmament of Iraqi militias (though he himself commands the largest militia).
As the Parliament begins to take shape, the biggest political block is a coalition named Inkaz al-Watan (Saving the Homeland) composed of parties who reject Iran’s growing intervention in Iraq and in Iraqi affairs. That coalition, which to date, has all together 136 out of the total 329 Parliamentary seats – and will likely grow with the addition of Sunni and Kurdish parties – is led by major Iraqi Shi’ite political figures: Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of Saeroun; Haider al-Abadi, the current Iraqi Prime Minister and the leader of the Al-Nasr (the Victory) Coalition which came in third with 42 seats; Ayad Allawi, the current Vice-President and former Prime Minister and leader of Al-Wataniya (The National) Party that won 21 seats; and ‘Ammar al-Hakim, the leader of the Al-Hikma al-Wataniya (the National Wisdom) Movement and former head of the Supreme Islamic Council in Iraq which won 19 seats.
That coalition has a very important quiet supporter; Grand Ayatollah ‘Ali al-Sistani, viewed by many as the most influential figure in Iraqi politics and the most admired religious authority of Shi’ites worldwide. In the Shi’ite clerical order, the position of Grand Ayatollah is the highest rank; in Iraq there are four Grand Ayatollahs, the most prominent of which is al-Sistani. All four Grand Ayatollahs reject the theocratic model of the Iranian Mullah regime and oppose its core ideology, Wilayat al-Faqih “Rule of Jurist” – which demands total obedience to the Jurist who is immune from mistakes because he is filling in for – and therefore gets his orders from – the “Anticipated Imam” who is to return and redeem the world through a process in which most of mankind will perish.
The clear message of the May 2018 elections – which the upcoming Parliament will reflect, is that most Iraqis oppose Iranian intervention in Iraq.
However, the Mullah regime maintains a strong influence on Iraqi politics. The second-place winner in the elections, winning 48 seats, is the Iranian-affiliated Iraqi party – Al-Fath (Triumph), led by Hadi al-Amiri, the leader of the Al-Badr militia. Al-Fath is a coalition of Iranian-backed Iraqi Shi’ite militias which are also members of Al-Hashd al-Sha’abi (Popular Mobility Units – PMU) an Iraqi paramilitary force which is officially part of the Iraqi security forces and works under the direction of the Iraqi Prime Minister’s Office. The PMU is composed of dozens of armed militias comprising anywhere from 40,000 and 160,000 militants most of whom are Shi’ite – some are Sunni, Kurdish, Turkmen, and Christian – yet their numbers are negligible. Another Iranian affiliated Iraqi party, The Dawlat al-Kanoun (The State of Law) Party, led by former Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, won 26 seats. Together Al-Fath and Dawlat al-Kanoun have 74 seats.
The anticipated composition of the incoming parliament will reflect the current tensions in Iraqi society, and will impact the future path, identity, and direction of Iraq and Iraqi society. The two largest blocks, both of which are predominantly Shi’ite – one headed by Muqtatda Al-Sadr and his political allies and the other led by Hadi al-Amiri and his political allies – differ on some key issues. Two of those core contentious issues are the dismantling of private militias and Iranian influence in Iraq.
Iraq is plagued with violence and flooded with weapons. Private citizens, as well as independent militias, have their own arsenals. Al-Sadr argues the government is the only entity that should have weapons, demands all militias disarm, and there be one Iraqi army. He announced his militia will store its weapons and will maintain a limited overt military presence in southern Iraq. Al-Fath leaders argue their militias deserve to keep their arms because they are part of Iraq’s armed forces and due to the major role they played in defeating ISIS. Al-Sadr’s demand is impractical. The disarmament of individuals and militias in the foreseeable future is unrealistic.
Iraq is of utmost strategic importance to the Iranian Mullah Regime. Demographically, Shi’ites make up the largest group in Iraq. Religiously, the most sacred shrines and spiritual centers of the Shi’ites – Najaf and Kerbela – are both in southern Iraq. Economically, Najaf and Kerbela are major pilgrimage destinations for millions of Iranians – creating economic and commercial opportunities for Iranian companies in tourism, transportation, and construction. Iraqi’s are important customers for Iranian goods – markets are flush with Iranian products. Iran extracts oil in Iraq and the countries share five cross-border oil fields – estimated to be the largest in the Middle East, with a potential output of 95 billion barrels. And geopolitically, Iraq has a significant role in the Mullah regime’s plan to become the leading regional superpower. One mechanism Iran uses to extend its power and influence and further its goals is through arming and supporting agents and proxies like Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas and the IJIP (Islamic Jihad in Palestine) in the Gaza Strip, Houthi Shi’ite tribes in Yemen – and Shi’ite militias in Iraq. A cornerstone of their strategy is to build and control a land corridor stretching from Iran to the Mediterranean Sea, which they say is “vital for Iran’s strategic interest and national security.” Iraq is a critical component of this corridor.
Increasing Iranian Intervention Causing Growing Unrest in Iraq
Iran’s growing influence and intervention in Iraq is causing growing unrest and opposition. Iraqi Shi’ite resentment towards Iran – manifested in anti-Iranian slogans, and attacks on offices and properties of Pro-Iranian Iraqi groups during the July 2018 protests in southern Iraq – is rooted in the fact that Iraqi Shi’ites are Arab – not Persian, and the fact that Shi’ite clergy in Iraq has traditionally offered an alternative – often competing – political and spiritual authority to the Iranian Shi’ite clergy.
Indeed, most of the senior political and religious Shi’ite leaders – Muqtada al-Sadr, Haider al-‘Abadi, Ayad al-Allawi, Ammar al-Hakim, all four of the Grand Ayatollahs – all oppose Iran’s expansionist vision and policy. In addition, they object to the role of Iraqi militias outside Iraq – particularly fighting in the war in Syria in the service of Iran to preserve the Assad regime and to ensure Iranian control over the land corridor. On the other hand, al-Fath coalition leader, al-Amiri threatened to “overthrow any Iraqi government that will cooperate with the US” – signaling that Iran will continue its policy of cultivating a political and military power center in Iraq, the goal of which is to enable Iran to dictate Iraq’s domestic and foreign policy to further its own interests and ambitions.
Heading for a Break-Up?
Iraqi politicians are spinning in a whirlpool of bargaining and negotiations. And Iraqis are drowning in a flood disinformation and political spins. This environment, combined with growing socioeconomic stress, increasing Iranian intervention, cynical political opportunism, sectarianism, deep corruption, and independent militias which – with or without the Iraqi government’s approval – operate parallel to the state’s authority, sometimes completely contradicting Iraqi government laws and policy, is a recipe for disaster. It is no wonder that at the end of July Iraqi Supreme Shi’ite Clerics urged Iraqi politicians to quickly assemble a government to address the escalating challenges of the people. The formation of Al-Sadr’s broad coalition may finally pave the way for the assembling of a new government.
Many argue Iraq is heading towards a civil war which will lead to its disintegration. In my view, the disintegration of Iraq in the foreseeable future is unlikely.
Keeping Iraq whole is the political consensus is Iraq today. Of all the issues in the 2018 election, “Keeping Iraq’s national identity and geographic integrity as an Arab State” was a slogan used by almost all the candidates. The election results and the broad coalition al-Sadr created reflect this is what most Iraqis want.
Keeping Iraq in tact is also in the interest of the Iranian Mullah regime. They like a weak – yet not disintegrated state, they can influence through proxies. The break-up of Iraq will backfire on Iran. Independent Sunni Arab and Sunni Kurdish entities in central and northern Iraq could become a source of threat to the government by fueling unrest and separatist sentiments among oppressed minorities in Iran – the Kurds, Sunnis, Shi’ite Arabs of Khozestan, etc. This would add to the regime’s growing domestic challenges. Indeed, the Iranian Ambassador to Iraq, Iraj Masjedi, announced in August 2018 that Iran supports Iraq’s integrity and unity.
Though unlikely to disintegrate – corruption, frustration, poverty, unemployment, violence, sectarianism and Iranian intervention and influence will continue to plague Iraqi politics and society.
For more on this topic see my article: Will Iran Deepen its Intervention in Iraq?