As the countdown to Iraq's 2018 elections ticks away, post-war stakeholders are warming up for the parliamentary race ahead. Rumours about leading candidates, some of whom espouse not optimism but fear, are circulating. As battles against Daesh wind down, Iraqi militias are shuffling around and coalescing into smaller parties to circumvent national laws that prohibit their participation in next year's vote.
In the words of political analyst Mustafa Gurbuz, militias that formerly served Iraq's Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) are "translating field victories into political scores" in an attempt to galvanise the masses and seal their victory in defiance of the central state. Their guns remain firmly at their side. The mutation of these units has only thickened the air of controversy.
The appointment of a former militia leader as prime minister in Iraq is particularly troubling for the Trump administration in the US, and feared more than the return of former premier Nouri Al-Maliki or other Dawa Party affiliates. It would be a defeat that would be written down as America's biggest in Iraq to date.
The race to the top faces tough competition from Iraq's most vocal paramilitary network — the League of the Righteous (Asa'ib Ahl Al-Haq; "AHH") — acting under the instructions of Qais Al-Khazali. He is known for having coordinated the raid on the Karbala Provincial Coordination Centre in January 2007, in which his men donned US military uniforms and presented counterfeit identification. America lost 5 of its soldiers on that day, murdered in an attack that may not be forgotten any time soon. Khazali has long assured his followers that now is not the time for AHH to turn its back on Iraq's political system.
The group's official position was made crystal clear in a recent television debate with AHH spokesman Naeem Al-Aboudi over the withdrawal of several PMF factions in the battle to reclaim Tel Afar due to US military involvement. "After the AHH withdrawal," explained Aboudi, "the group has had nothing to do with the actions of the PMF forces. We are now a political movement that acts independently of Hashd Al-Shaabi." This was a reference to the Arabic name of the PMF umbrella organisation.
Another controversial figure potentially in the electoral race is MP and former Badr Corps warlord Hadi Al-Ameri, who straddles an interesting political space. As both a PMF commander and parliamentarian, he navigates a tricky terrain, claiming on the one hand to serve the people of Iraq, while, on the other, acquiring Iran's unequivocal support in exchange for loyalty from one of its leading proxies.
Bets on Ameri as Iraq's next prime minister are at best misplaced. No incentive presents itself for him to abandon his privileged post as a winning political player who has held 22 seats in parliament since November 2016. Words chosen carefully by Ameri in an interview on Dijla TV in June this year validate this, while revealing the intended game plan of PMF factions.
"Hashd Al-Shaabi does not possess the right to enter any election," insisted Ameri. "It is a component of the security apparatus. Whether it's the Hashd or the police or Iraq's security forces, they cannot enter. However, recognised political blocs that are linked to PMF factions can… all the parties, Dawa, Badr, Sadrists, Iraq's Islamic Supreme Council (ISCI) Usama Nujaifi… they all have their own Hashd units."
In following Ameri's logic, success can only be secured by PMF groupings capable of riding on the back of official political blocs. Ameri does not protest about the entry of these groups, suggesting that their cooperation may be bought should they make it onto the ballot paper.
Having lost control of its territories to Daesh, the steady decline of the Iraqi state is what has facilitated militia advances into the political area. The danger, as retired US army intelligence officer Michael Pregent has warned previously, is that no matter what garb militias adopt, "a different uniform doesn't mean you aren't who you are, who their group identity is and who they're committed to."
Fearing the instalment of a militia prime minister, America's preferred course of action is to boost voter confidence in players with stable electoral bases and nourish new secular and cross-sectarian alliances, such as that formed recently between the Sadrists and Ayad Allawi's Wataniya bloc. Keeping Haider Al-Abadi in the post for another term — in the case of a hung parliament — may be America's final attempt to confine Iraq's militias to the margins of power.
Only time will tell if America can prevent the militias from hijacking its process. What is certain — judging by the history of Iraq's past electoral cycles — is that frustrated ambitions may push the country back over the edge once violence is employed by candidates.
If the race is lost to the militia camp, the rise of a quisling government that panders to Iran's political clergy is guaranteed, as is the further erosion of what is left of Iraq's sovereignty. The men in the running may have demonstrated their ability to fight but not to govern.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.