Iran-backed faction threatens post-election turmoil in Iraq

Unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud in Iraq’s most recent election have sown uncertainty and heightened divisions between political groups in the country. Finals results for the election, hailed by the U.S. and U.N. as the smoothest in years, have not been released.

Khalid Mohammed/AP
Security forces prevent protesters denouncing election results from storming the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, Iraq, Oct. 31, 2021. The results showed that a Shiite paramilitary group lost the most parliamentary seats, sparking outcry.

More than three weeks after Iraqis voted in parliament elections, pro-Iran Shiite militias that emerged as the biggest losers are still rejecting the outcome of the vote, thrusting the country into uncertainty and political crisis.

Militia supporters have pitched tents near the entrance to Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone in an ongoing sit-in, threatening violence unless their grievances are addressed.

The unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud are casting a shadow over an election that was praised by the United States, the U.N. Security Council, and others for being the smoothest in years and without major technical glitches. The standoff is also increasing tensions among rival Shiite factions that could reflect on the street and threaten Iraq’s newfound relative stability.

The Oct. 10 vote was held months ahead of schedule in response to mass protests in late 2019 that saw tens of thousands of people in Baghdad and predominantly Shiite southern provinces rally against endemic corruption, poor services, and unemployment. They also protested against the heavy-handed interference of neighboring Iran in Iraq’s affairs through Iran-backed militias.

The election results further exposed the dangerous political divisions among Shiite factions. Shiite Muslims make up the majority of Iraq’s estimated 40 million people.

The biggest election gains were made by influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who won 73 out of 329 parliament seats. While he maintains good relations with Iran, Mr. Sadr publicly opposes external interference in Iraq’s affairs. The Taqadum party led by Parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi, a Sunni, came second with 37 seats, while former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law bloc won 35 seats.

Meanwhile, the Iran-backed Fatah Alliance that represents the Shiite paramilitary group known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) lost two-thirds of its parliament seats, dropping from 48 to around 16 – a stunning defeat. The alliance had made big gains after participating in elections for the first time in 2018. At the time, it was riding a wave of popularity after playing a major role, alongside Iraqi security forces and a U.S.-led coalition, in the defeat of Islamic State (IS) group extremists across the country in 2017.

But the mood changed. Some began questioning the need for the PMF, an armed militia force that increasingly challenged the state’s authority. The force itself has splintered, with some factions aligned with top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani breaking away. The militias also lost some popularity in the past two years, alienating many after taking part in brutally suppressing the youth-led protest movement in late 2019 and early 2020.

“Iraq is entering a new phase in its political history that the PMF and its Iranian sponsors are ill-equipped to manage, one in which coercive power may not be sufficient,” wrote Ranj Alaaldin, a nonresident fellow at Brookings Institution, “Together with Iran, the PMF is learning the hard way that power through the barrel of a gun is not sustainable.”

Election results reflected not only the losses of Iran-allied parties. They showed that even politicians who distanced themselves from Tehran several years ago, such as former Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi and cleric Ammar al-Hakim, fared poorly, said political analyst Tamer Badawi, an associate fellow with the Bonn-based CARPO research center.

“The street’s backlash is multilayered and broadly against old guard parties’ inability to provide benefits and good governance,” said Mr. Badawi. He said many Iraqis also blame Iran for Iraq’s dire situation.

It’s unclear when the final election results will be announced. The higher election committee is currently looking into more than a thousand appeals, although results are not likely to change significantly.

Iraqi troops have been on alert since the election, as militia members and their supporters take to the street, denouncing the election as a fraud and raising the prospect of clashes. The demonstrators have chanted slogans against the U.S. and denounced U.N. officials, who monitored the election.

The protests appear to be aimed at pressuring Mr. Sadr to ensure that Iran-aligned factions are part of the next Cabinet, regardless of the number of seats they won. Since it got the largest number of seats, Mr. Sadr’s bloc will seek coalition partners and name the prime minister.

“If they are outside of the government, they will lose financial resources and this will weaken them,” a senior Shiite official said, adding that Fatah Alliance leaders were stunned by their electoral loss. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to divulge sensitive information.

Mr. Sadr has kept quiet about plans for coalition negotiations, pending final results. But he has announced the closure of the offices of his Saraya al-Salam fighters in various provinces – a largely symbolic move apparently meant to show he is serious about bringing all arms under state control. He has also called for new dialogue about the ongoing American troop presence and condemned strikes against diplomatic missions that were believed to have been carried out by PMF groups.

Shiite factions will need to find some common ground to prevent a resurgence of IS, a Sunni group, Mr. Badawi said. Last week, suspected IS militants attacked a predominantly Shiite village in Diyala province, killing 11 civilians and spurring a revenge attack on a nearby Sunni village.

But analysts say the threats from Fatah-linked groups will likely persist until they reach a power-sharing deal with Mr. Sadr.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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