By Baria Alamuddin
Arab News, 4 December 2017 - With around 3 million people (mostly Sunnis) displaced by ongoing instability across the central provinces of Iraq, there has never been a better opportunity for a power-grab by Iran-backed sectarian forces via parliamentary and provincial elections early next year.
Last week, a new political entity came into being. The Coalition of the Mujahideen, comprising all the primary Iran-affiliated factions, is the guise within which militants from Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi intend to compete in the elections (recently confirmed for May 15). The coalition will be led by Al-Hashd leader Hadi Amiri, who has been giving out signals that he seeks nothing less than the role of prime minister.
We have long been told that such a scenario would be impossible because the law prohibits paramilitary figures from becoming politicians. But the resignation of Al-Hashd spokesman and veteran militant Ahmad Asadi, while simultaneously announcing his entry into the coalition, serves as a model that others can follow, throwing off their military uniforms and declaring themselves legitimate politicians. In any case, factions such as Asaib Ahl Al-Haq and the Badr Organization already have representatives in Parliament.
This arguably knocks the ball into Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's court. He had been the loudest advocate for Al-Hashd’s disarmament and banishment from politics. But this notoriously indecisive politician (himself from the Dawa Party, the forefather of all Al-Hashd entities) appears to have shifted his posture, taking credit for the October rout of Kurdish forces from Kirkuk and other cities, a development brokered by Tehran and enforced by Al-Hashd fighters. Soon afterward, Al-Abadi rebuked US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for saying: “Iranian militias that are in Iraq… need to go home.” Al-Abadi has promised to increase Al-Hashd wages to match those of the armed forces — not the actions of a man aspiring to enforce Al-Hashd’s demobilization.
What are its electoral prospects? The movement is universally popular among Shiite constituents, thanks to three years of relentless propaganda disingenuously portraying them as the force that single-handedly defeated Daesh. But this alone will not guarantee a parliamentary majority. Other Shiite factions are divided, so the key question is whether Tehran succeeds in uniting them within a revamped National Alliance, or whether moderate elements reach across the sectarian divide on an Iraqi nationalist ticket.
The numerous possible permutations make predictions futile, but with the shattered status of Sunni communities, and with the two main Kurdish parties at loggerheads, the Coalition of the Mujahideen threatens to be the only unified and disciplined electoral force on the field.
In normal conditions, when Shiite parties are united they tend to gain around 47 percent of the vote. But during periods of conflict, when Sunni communities have been unable or unwilling to vote, sectarian Shiite forces captured as much as 53 percent of the vote. When Iraq has been at relative peace (such as in 2010), large numbers of Shiites voted for anti-sectarian electoral lists.
So Al-Hashd’s best (and maybe only) prospect of gaining a sufficient proportion of votes and capturing the prime minister’s office is through an insecure climate where Sunnis do not vote and fearful Shiites are intimidated into backing a strongman such as Amiri.
With the shattered status of Sunni communities, and with the two main Kurdish parties at loggerheads, the Coalition of the Mujahideen — comprising militants from Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi — threatens to be the only unified and disciplined electoral force on the field in next year’s elections.
Diyala province since 2014 has been his private fiefdom, with sectarian purges and sporadic Daesh activity keeping hundreds of thousands of Sunnis displaced, and Amiri’s forces blocking their return. In northern Diyala, Al-Hashd and Kurdish Peshmerga forces colluded to purge the entire Sunni population from towns such as Jalawla and Saadiyah. In October, Al-Hashd decisively purged the Peshmerga. In less than a decade, Diyala has — perhaps permanently — lost its substantial Sunni majority, with significant consequences for provincial and parliamentary elections.
In Kirkuk, Al-Hashd factions such as Asaib Ahl Al-Haq are now dominant, and Al-Hashd pre-eminence has been consolidated by putting the city under the control of Gen. Ali Fadhil Imran from the Amiri-dominated Dijla Operations Command (DOC).
According to the Institute for the Study of War: “Iran’s influence over the DOC’s leadership is a template for how the security structure in Kirkuk will likely evolve.” With tens of thousands of Kurds have fled localities such as Kirkuk, Tuz Khurmatu, and Sinjar, Al-Hashd can exploit paramilitary muscle for electoral gain.
The elections are just around the corner, yet the Sunni-majority provinces of Nineveh, Anbar, and Salahuddin remain war zones, and Amiri has every intention of and Amiri has every intention of keeping them that way. Fresh military operations have displaced tens of thousands of citizens, and a huge proportion of Mosul’s Sunnis remains in camps, facing spurious accusations of Daesh sympathies.
To Al-Hashd leaders, the 2018 elections may be their best opportunity yet to translate military dominance into political pre-eminence, cruising on the crest of a wave of Shiite support while Sunni and Kurdish enemies are shattered and rudderless.
These are the same ruthless militias that, through a 2005-08 campaign of sectarian cleansing, emptied most Baghdad districts of their Sunni residents, then perpetrated well-documented war crimes against the populations of Tikrit, Ramadi, and Fallujah following their recapture from Daesh.
We can expect them to exploit every dirty trick in the book to secure their ambition of dominating Iraq politically and militarily. The US has amply proven that it is paying scarce attention to Iraqi politics, despite these militias have killed hundreds of American troops and threatening to recommence such attacks.
Iraq under Al-Hashd governance would be an Iranian proxy, just like Syria under President Bashar Assad and Lebanon under Hezbollah. We could expect fundamental adjustments to Iraq’s political system, finalizing the sectarianization of the armed forces (already well-advanced through Badr’s domination of the Interior Ministry) and forcibly marginalizing rival segments of Iraqi society.
Al-Hashd’s success in the coming elections is not inevitable (the key factor may be how Tehran and Al-Hashd leaders play their cards in the brinkmanship following the votes). Yet this is enough of a nightmare scenario to merit urgent action through efforts to galvanize Al-Hashd’s electoral rivals.
Its leaders deliberately obscured their electoral intentions until the last minute. There now exists a tiny window of opportunity for moderates, Sunnis, Kurds and other factions to mobilize against Al-Hashd’s political juggernaut before it mows them all down.
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.