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An Unholy Union?
The Still-Born Political Alliance That Casts Doubt On Iraq’s Popular PM

Mustafa Habib
Iraq’s popular prime minister had long been critical of the often-controversial Shiite Muslim militias. But last week he formed a short-lived alliance with them to compete in general elections. What went wrong?
18.01.2018  |  Baghdad
Did he make a bad decision? PM Haider al-Abadi is still a hero to many Iraqis. (photo: الكس براندون - جيتي )
Did he make a bad decision? PM Haider al-Abadi is still a hero to many Iraqis. (photo: الكس براندون - جيتي )

Over the past days and even weeks, in the run up to the announcement of alliances for upcoming Iraqi elections, there has been much political gamesmanship on display in the country. Different political parties and factions have discussed, and moved in and out of, various alliances and there has been much talk about how political friends and enemies are traded, when the main objective is purely to hang onto power.

The alliance that inspired the most debate, and which also surprised many, was that announced by the current Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi.

Al-Abadi announced the formation of the “Victory alliance” last week and as soon as he did so, another alliance – one comprised of many of the political organisations affiliated with the Shiite Muslim militias that had fought the extremist Islamic State group – joined it. This includes some of the more hard-line and controversial organisations, closely related to Iran, and it is led by Hadi al-Ameri, the head of the Badr organisation.

The formation of this alliance was particularly odd because just a few days beforehand, the two groups involved had appeared to be enemies, exchanging accusations and slurs.

However just as quickly as it formed, that particular partnership disintegrated. But before it did so, it put al-Abadi in the firing line, drawing criticism from voters, fellow politicians and the country’s religious authorities.

 

 

Iraqi PM al-Abadi (right) shakes hands with Badr leader, Hadi al-Ameri.

 

Just one short week before the Victory alliance was created, analysts had suggested that al-Abadi would stand closer to the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and his political party, and that they would be opposed to any political entities formed by the former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has a closer relationship with the Shiite Muslim militias. Basically, it seemed that the former – the anti-Iran, anti-foreign interference parties - would stand against the latter, politicians more closely affiliated with Iran.

But that did not happen and some observers now say that Iran was involved in the deal done between al-Abadi and the Shiite Muslim militias’ parties. Some have even suggested that Iranian military commander, Qasim Soleimani, might have had a hand in the political jockeying. They say that Soleimani would have engineered a reconciliation between the Shiite Muslim militias, which often profess allegiance to Iran, and al-Abadi’s faction. He would have done this in order to ensure, firstly, Shiite unity inside Iraq and secondly, that the prime minister of Iraq was definitely going to be a Shiite Muslim.

But after the announcement of the alliance, things did not go quite as planned. There were three main factors behind the alliance’s speedy collapse.

Angry Voters + Clerics

Fresh from victory against the extremist Islamic State group, al-Abadi has been seen by many ordinary voters as the heroic leader to unite the Sunni and Shiite Muslims of Iraq. They also saw him as taking a balanced position between the country’s two feuding international allies, Iran and the US. The fact that he had also apparently restored diplomatic relations with the Sunni Gulf Arab states also seemed a step in the right direction. In general, there was hope that there might be less sectarian conflict in these upcoming elections.

However, his choice to stand for election alongside the Shiite Muslim militias, who tend towards the sectarian in their behaviour, was widely criticized.

On Iraqi social media there were hundreds of posts expressing shock. Some of those commentators were quick to republish older quotes from al-Abadi, where he criticized the armed factions operating outside of the official frame work – that is, the militias he had just announced an alliance with – and his promises to abandon sectarian quotas.

Al-Abadi has even been seen as something of a hero among the Sunni Muslim population, despite the fact that the man is himself a Shiite Muslim and that he is a member of a staunchly Shiite Muslim political party, Dawa.

While many Iraqi Sunnis may have felt some optimism about al-Abadi, they don’t feel the same about the Shiite Muslim militias. They still view these fighting units with fear and concern. The whereabouts of hundreds of Sunni Muslims missing from areas like Tikrit and Anbar remain unknown; they are suspected to have been abducted, and possibly killed, by militia members out for revenge on the Islamic State group.

Some of the harshest comments about al-Abadi came from an influential source, Muqtada al-Sadr, the young cleric some had thought would make al-Abadi’s best running mate. Al-Sadr described the union as sectarian. “I will not support it or join it,” al-Sadr stated. “I will only support an alliance of technocrats.”   

Al-Sadr has allied his political representatives with the country’s Communist party and with civil society and secular groups.  

Apparently an even more senior and important religious authority also did not approve. Najaf-based clerics close to the highest Shiite Muslim religious authority in the country, Ali al-Sistani, told NIQASH on condition of anonymity that, “the religious authority used to respect al-Abadi and appreciate him but it is hard to understand this most recent move”.

A Troubled Alliance

 

There were further, apparently insurmountable problems within the alliance too. For one thing, the Victory alliance was huge, with around 67 different big and small parties involved. This was partially because of al-Abadi’s popularity – many politicians clearly wanted to benefit from his star power.  

Around 18 of the factions involved were the Shiite Muslim ones with closer relations to Iran, offshoots of some of the most hard-line Shiite Muslim militias, such as the Badr brigades and the League of the Righteous. But the alliance also involved some prominent Sunni Muslim factions that represent Sunni interests from right around the country.

Even within the Shiite Muslim organisations involved, who did not have such a strong Iranian connection, there were long standing disagreements to overcome. For example, cleric Ammar al-Hakim also joined the Victory alliance with his new National Wisdom party. In forming the latter in the middle of last year, al-Hakim had caused resentment in his old party, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, or ISCI. The ISCI are also part of the Victory alliance.

No Election Laws

Last but not least, there is a third reason for the failure of the Victory alliance. Iraq is still lacking some of the rules it needs in order to conduct the elections in May. Although some of the legislation has been agreed upon, other aspects have not been clarified.

The country’s Independent High Election Commission says they need legislation in place six months before any election, in order to be able to hold a vote. It is now four months before the proposed election date of May 12 and the Iraqi parliament still has not managed to vote on the required rules. In fact, the elections could still be postponed because of these rules.

Without clear rules, it is difficult for Iraqi political parties to negotiate alliances seriously. The law would stipulate how seats in parliament are shared out and what proportion of votes count toward which smaller parties. Without this central tenet of electoral legislation, it is impossible to come up with a set of serious alliances. Quite possibly this is also what has led to the hasty and possibly unwise creation of unions such as al-Abadi’s Victory alliance.

The Victory alliance still stands at the moment, albeit in a smaller form once again. The alliance is now made up of a mix of smaller Sunni and Shiite parties, with perhaps the most significant member now being al-Hakim’s faction.  

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