More than three weeks after the Iraqis voted in parliamentary elections, pro-Iranian Shiite militias who have emerged as the biggest losers are still rejecting the outcome of the vote, plunging the country into political uncertainty and 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.
Unfounded allegations of electoral fraud cast a shadow over an election that has been hailed by the United States, the UN Security Council and others for having been the most fluid in years and without major technical glitches. The stalemate also increases tensions between rival Shiite factions which could reflect in the streets and threaten Iraq’s regained relative stability.
The October 10 vote came months ahead of schedule in response to mass protests in late 2019 that saw tens of thousands of people in Baghdad and the predominantly Shiite southern provinces rally against rampant corruption, the poor services and unemployment. They also protested against neighboring Iran’s brutal interference in Iraqi affairs through Iranian-backed militias.
The election results further highlighted the dangerous political divisions between the Shiite factions. Shia Muslims constitute the majority of Iraq’s 40 million inhabitants.
The biggest electoral gains came from influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who won 73 of 329 seats in parliament. While maintaining good relations with Iran, al-Sadr publicly opposes outside interference in Iraqi affairs. The Taqadum party led by Parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi, a Sunni, came second with 37 seats, while the rule of law bloc of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki won 35 seats.
Meanwhile, the Iran-backed Fatah Alliance, which represents the Shiite paramilitary group known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, lost two-thirds of its seats in parliament, from 48 to around 16 – a staggering defeat. The alliance had made great strides after competing in the 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 coalition led by the United States, in defeating Islam. Group of extremist states across the country in 2017.
But the mood has changed. Some began to question the need for the PMF, an armed militia force that increasingly challenged state authority. The force itself split, with some factions aligned with the senior Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, breaking up. The militias have also lost some popularity over the past two years, alienating many after 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 handle, a phase in which coercive power may not be enough,” wrote Ranj Alaaldin, a non-resident researcher at the Brookings Institution, “Together with Iran, PMF is learning the hard way that power through the barrel of a gun is not sustainable.”
The election results do not only reflect the losses of parties allied with Iran. They have shown that even politicians who distanced themselves from Tehran several years ago, such as former prime minister Haidar al-Abadi and cleric Ammar al-Hakim, are doing poorly, political scientist Tamer Badawi said. , associate researcher at the CARPO research center based in Bonn. .
“The backlash from the streets is multi-layered and largely against the inability of the old guard parties to provide benefits and good governance,” Badawi said. He said many Iraqis also blame Iran for Iraq’s dire situation.
It is not known when the final election results will be announced. The senior electoral committee is currently reviewing more than a thousand appeals, although the results are not likely to change significantly.
Iraqi troops have been on high alert since the elections, as militiamen and their supporters take to the streets, denouncing the elections as a fraud and raising fears of clashes. Protesters chanted slogans against the United States and denounced UN officials, who monitored the election.
The protests appear to be aimed at putting pressure on al-Sadr to ensure that factions aligned with Iran are part of the next cabinet, regardless of how many seats they win. Since it has won the most seats, the al-Sadr bloc will seek coalition partners and appoint the prime minister.
“If they are outside the government, they will lose financial resources and this will weaken them,” said a senior Shiite official, adding that the leaders of the Fatah Alliance were stunned by their electoral defeat. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to disclose sensitive information.
Al-Sadr has remained silent on plans for coalition negotiations, pending final results. But he announced the closure of the offices of his Saraya al-Salam fighters in various provinces – a largely symbolic move apparently intended to show his determination to bring all weapons under state control. He also called for a new dialogue on the continued presence of US troops and condemned strikes against diplomatic missions allegedly carried out by PMF groups.
Shiite factions will need to find common ground to prevent a resurgence of ISIS, a Sunni group, Badawi said. Last week, suspected IS militants attacked a predominantly Shiite village in Diyala province, killing 11 civilians and unleashing a revenge attack on a nearby Sunni village.
But analysts say threats from Fatah-linked groups are likely to persist until they reach a power-sharing deal with al-Sadr.