Analysts who take Iraqi politics at face value are celebrating the most recent parliamentary elections held on October 10, considering them a major defeat for Iran. Much of that analysis is based on the major loss suffered by the Fateh Alliance, a coalition of Shiite parties formed with Iranian funds back in 2018. Their bloc has been slashed from 48 to 20 MPs, prompting their leader Hadi al-Amiri to declare, “We will not accept these fabricated results, whatever the cost.”
Amiri heads the powerful Badr Organization, an Iran-funded militia formed in the 1980s to fight Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War. The Badr Organization returned to Iraq after the downfall of Hussein in 2003. They ran death squads on the streets of Baghdad to eliminate their traditional enemies, both among Sunni Muslims and Shiite rivals, and were frequently in control of the Ministry of Interior. The Badr Organization’s share of the previous parliament was 22 seats, but they are now down to just five, explaining Amiri’s frustration.
Also on the losing end of the elections is the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), better known as al-Hashd al-Shaabi, another Iran-funded militia formed in 2014 to fight the Islamic State (ISIS). Like Badr, it too is part of the Fateh Alliance, where militia campaigned under the title “Al-Aqd al-Watani” (The National Covenant). Headed by former Iraqi National Security Advisor Faleh Fayyad, it won only five seats.
The Iraqi Chamber is composed of 329 seats and 165 seats are needed for a majority vote.
The Iraqi Chamber is composed of 329 seats and 165 seats are needed for a majority vote. None of these parties can single-handedly name any future prime minister unless they team up with bigger and more powerful blocs within the parliament. Upon first glance, it would seem that the Iraqi elections results were a big setback for Iran. However, there is more than meets the eye.
The Nuri al-Maliki Factor
Although the Fateh Alliance failed to secure a majority vote, Iran’s other ally, Nuri al-Maliki, did, sweeping the polls with 37 MPs. A former Prime Minister who has been on Iranian payroll for years, he is no less pro-Iranian than the Fateh Alliance. After all, Maliki is the man who cemented Iranian influence in Iraq during the years 2006-2014.
Iraqi Sunnis were furious during Maliki’s era, when most of the country’s Ba’ath officials were arrested and hanged, including Saddam Hussein. Maliki gave Shiite militias a green light to run the streets of Iraq after sunset, protecting them from persecution by the Iraqi justice in exchange for their allegiance. It was under his tenure that Iranian-backed militias emerged and flourished.
During his last year in office, ISIS swept through Iraq and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s self-proclaimed caliphate was declared from Mosul, forcing Maliki to step down. Twenty-four hours after his resignation, on September 9, 2014, Maliki was appointed Vice-President of Iraq. Due to a series of malpractices, his State of Law Coalition won only 25 seats during the parliamentary elections of 2018, coming as a distant third place in Shiite politics.
Maliki was corrupt, authoritarian, and famed for his nepotism. Although he did not win a parliamentary majority, Maliki will certainly have a say in the naming of any future premier and might create a bloc with his friends in the Fateh Alliance, which would bring their share up to 57 MPs.
The Kingmaker: Muqtada al-Sadr
The kingmaker of any future cabinet, however, remains Muqtada al-Sadr, a rebel-turned statesman who heads Sairoun, the main victor in this month’s elections. Sairoun has increased its share from 54 to 73 seats, although Sadr was originally targeting no less than 100 MPs. This victory was mainly due to low turnout on Election Day, when only 41% of eligible voters cast their ballot.
While many Iraqis boycotted the elections, Sadr’s followers showed up in large numbers to vote for his candidates
While many Iraqis boycotted the elections, Sadr’s followers showed up in large numbers to vote for his candidates, reminiscent of the 2018 elections, where voter turnout was only 44% (down from 61% in 2018), leading to a big victory for the Sadrists.
The son of a legendary Shiite leader who was believed to have been killed at Saddam’s orders in 1999, Sadr rose to fame for leading an insurgency against US forces back in 2004, which put him on the US hit list. He formed a notorious militia known as the Mehdi Army, which was very popular among the urban poor of Iraqi Shiites. Sadr gave them arms and provided them with protection from Iraqi justice, leaving them to freely run their neighborhoods.
In 2008, Sadr traveled to Iran to study and polish his religious credentials while ordering a freeze on operations of the Mehdi Army to purge the group from thugs and criminals. He then returned to Iraq a reborn statesman, made intellectually, politically, and religiously stronger, and re-organized his troops from a militia into a political party.
Sadr helped bring Maliki to office in 2006 and then had the final say in toppling him in 2014. He then brought Haidar Abadi to office but withdrew his support after Abadi agreed to abide by US sanctions on Iran in November 2018. After, he helped prop Adel Abdul Mehdi as premier, he then ordered his followers to take part in demonstrations calling for his downfall in October 2019. In May 2020, he voted for Mustapha al-Kadhimi as Prime Minister. Critics often accused him of choosing premiers based on their loyalty to Iran. A sounder assessment, however, shows that he chooses them based on their loyalty to Muqtada al-Sadr.
Over the past five years, Sadr has often tried marketing himself as a critic of Iranian influence in Iraq
Over the past five years, Sadr has often tried marketing himself as a critic of Iranian influence in Iraq, with the hope of rebranding himself as an Iraqi nationalist speaking for both Sunnis and Shiites. Striking a particularly raw nerve for ordinary Iraqis, he encouraged his followers to demonstrate against the prevailing order of the government in October 2019, and criticized government services, the lack of jobs, and militia rule, while ignoring the fact that for years, he ran the most powerful militia in Iraq.
In April 2017, Sadr made world headlines by calling on Iran’s ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to resign. Two months later, he raised eyebrows by traveling to Saudi Arabia for a meeting with Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS), a sharp critic of Iran.
What didn’t make it in the news was a September 2019 visit to Tehran, where Sadr was invited to attend a holy Shiite religious ceremony. Iranian state media released a picture of Sadr seated between Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the late Qasem Solaimani, commander of the al-Quds Force.
Such positioning and homage are usually reserved for Iran’s top friends and most trusted allies, never for critics or opponents. Additionally, last July, Sadr sent a letter to President Assad, congratulating him on his re-election. No real opponent of Iran would do any of this, meaning that his 2017 overtures to Saudi Arabia were no more than a bluff, most likely orchestrated by none other than the mullahs of Tehran.
After the results were announced last week, Sadr gave a press conference, speaking with a strong command of classical Arabic (unlike his earlier speeches of 2004). Addressing the West more so than local Iraqis, Sadr asserted: “From now on, arms must be restricted in the hands of the state. The use of weapons shall be prevented outside the state’s framework. It is time for the people to live in peace, without occupation, terrorism, militias, kidnapping and fear.”
However bold these statements may sound, they remain meaningless, as Sadr criticizes the exact same practices that brought him to power and kept him at the helm of Iraqi politics for 18 long years.
Although commanding the lion’s share of seats, Sadr too will have to form a coalition in order to name a future premier.
Although commanding the lion’s share of seats, Sadr too will have to form a coalition in order to name a future premier. Last year, his supporters considered bringing a Sadrist to the seat of power in Baghdad, and more recently, one of his MPs Hakim al-Zameli said: “If the premiership goes to any other party than the Sadrist movement, it means that the elections are rigged.”
Sadr now has the luxury of picking who he wants as parliamentary allies, based on their influence and numbers. The second-largest bloc with whom he will undoubtedly work is that of Nuri al-Maliki, seconded by the Fateh Alliance. In total that would lead to a bloc of 130 MP, still 35 seats short of a majority.
This is where non-Shiite parties will play a role, like the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which won 32 seats in the chamber, and the Sunni Muslim bloc of Parliament Speaker Mohammad al-Halbousi, whose list, Taqaddum, scored 43 seats.
The crux of any coalition, however, will be the same Shiite parties that are affiliated with Iran, with varying degrees of influence and visibility, and whose leaders have been in control of Iraq since 2003. Rather than constituting a defeat for Iran, Iraq’s new chamber is no more than a game of musical chairs for Iran-backed politicians.