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Militias defend right to participate in Iraq's elections next year

Image of militants raising the Iraq and Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) flag [Mahmoud Hosseini/Wikipedia]
Militants can be seen raising the Iraq and Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) flag [Mahmoud Hosseini/Wikipedia]

Compared to Iraq, elections elsewhere in the world are relatively bland. The patterns of foreign meddling have long animated electoral cycles not only in Iraq, but also in neighbouring states.

A date has finally been set for the next elections in the country: 15 May, 2018. It marks a first in the history of Iraq, as members of the militias known as the Popular Mobilisation Units will be involved in the polls. They hide their political attentions behind the motto “For the blood our martyrs spill”, yet the presence of their foreign sponsors in the elections should come as no surprise, nor too the rippling consequences.

Unlike the Lebanese political landscape, Iraqi voters do not fold neatly into two camps; they are not either pro-Iranian or pro-Saudi. Certain segments of Iraqi society are not being given any choice. Those displaced internally will not be represented and the harshness of dislocation has kept political engagement at the lowest possible within these communities.

Sunni actors that have at one stage or another accepted the political process in Baghdad are rallying behind former tribal coalition names, but the country remains without a coherent opposition. Public freedoms beyond newly-erected tent dwellings will shrink considerably as the public is squeezed between jockeying would-be powers advancing anything but Iraq’s well-being.

The main card in Iran’s political deck, ex-prime minister Nouri Al-Maliki, is plotting a return to power. Last week, his militia allies were absorbed legally into the electoral realm after current Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi issued a licence approving their participation. However, the moves that militias endorsed by Al-Abadi have made against him raise questions about the “sovereign’s” decision-making and chances of survival. Twelve months of the electoral commission rejecting the registration of the PMU have thus amounted to nothing.

Read: Iraqi politics heats up ahead of next year’s elections

Campaign rhetoric is important, as Al-Abadi’s accelerated promotion as “strong and stable” attests, but Iraqi citizens are no strangers to the weaknesses that he displays. The Prime Minister’s rhetoric about safety provides Western coverage of Iraq the uniformity it needs for credibility, but many of the people inside the country have grown immune to propaganda steeped in fantasy. The image cultivated about the Iraqi state and the man running its government is one thing, his longevity is another. The escalating tone of the PMU opposition, defending their right to stand in Iraq’s elections, diminishes Al-Abadi’s stature further.

Going back on his comments made in late July, Al-Abadi’s weekly address disclosed that he had ordered PMU forces to retaliate against Daesh attacks from the Syrian side of the border, where Iraqi and Syrian Hezbollah factions are collaborating. He previously distanced himself from actors operating beyond Iraq’s borders.

Prime Minister of Iraq Haider al-Abadi delivers a speech on 8 March 2017 in Iraq [Feriq Fereç - Anadolu Agency]

Prime Minister of Iraq Haider al-Abadi delivers a speech on 8 March 2017 in Iraq [Feriq Fereç/Anadolu Agency]

The recently imposed hard-line/moderate model of analysis would have us believe that Al-Abadi is the moderate choice of the US administration. Although not exactly untrue, the dichotomy does little to address his alliance with hardliners, his Dawa Party membership and his service to Al-Maliki as his deputy from 2007 to 2014, as well as Iraq’s hard line power structures.

One may, in fact, ask whether the revived push this month to legalise child marriages in Iraq is in any way suggestive of moves designed to belittle Al-Abadi’s fairly secular stance. It’s a consideration that observers sidestep conveniently.

The myth is not altogether redundant. It allows the pro-Abadi camp to pursue re-election as a derailing strategy against hardliners, even if no successes are guaranteed.

Meanwhile, the fear of Iraq’s militia list winning a landslide victory is likely to stay. A list of militia units has been entered into the race alongside other parties, as an independent entity. However, when checked against the facts, the group appears to be feigning independence, while it accepts military, intelligence and logistical support from leading patron Iran.

Read: Iraq’s speaker rejects Shia militia’s participation in elections

Tehran views Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Units as an extension of its Hezbollah strategy, whereby non-state actors are reworked years after their formation to dwarf centralised power. The extraterritorial reach of Iran-obedient militiamen in Iraq is equally important for this strategy to succeed and keep the costs of Iranian funded operations in the region down. This can be gleaned from Iran’s latest creation, a contiguous land corridor stretching from Tehran through Iraq and Syria and on into Lebanon.

New alliances will no doubt be formed with lead electoral candidates, all of whom have carved out different but converging paths to power, whether the Sadrists, Al-Maliki’s camp or Al-Abadi himself. A government founded on such alliances which empowers Iraqi society’s religious components will not be stable.

Whether Iraq can ever show Iran the door, hinges on the chances of a militia commander becoming head of state. The appointment of either Al-Maliki or a militia leader would pull the Persian rug from beneath American boots, as they seek to expel US forces while edging towards Russia.

“The next phase in history is ours,” said the Secretary General of Saraya Al-Khorasani militia, Ali Al-Yasiri, recently in a television interview. “An era of PMU Jihad.” Bold pronouncements like these are more than bluster, piling more uncertainties on an already tense situation.

As promised, militias have taken the leadership mantle after months of fierce pre-election manoeuvring. Though staunch, their rhetoric of “building a better Iraq free from corruption” — as Yasiri boasted — is not convincing, but could secure them victory in Iraq’s upcoming electoral game of musical chairs.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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