In the southern Iraqi city of Basra, a group of fighters from one of the country’s Shiite Muslim militias was listening to their squad leader, Maytham al-Zaidi.
“We are not going to participate in elections and there is no political party that represents us,” al-Zaidi, a member of the Abbas Brigades, said; the Abbas brigades are one of Iraq’s more moderate militias. “So we urge you to select the best and most professional candidates. We would also warn any candidates up for election against using the names or pictures of our martyrs [brigade members who died in the fight against the extremist Islamic State group] in their election campaigning.”
Will the militias use their powerful reputations, and possibly even their guns, to win votes in the upcoming elections? And what, if anything, can the Iraqi government do about it?
The Abbas Brigades are one of the militias that made an official announcement saying they would not be competing in the upcoming Iraqi general elections, still slated for May 12. The brigade’s main founder, the highest Shiite Muslim cleric in the country, Ali al-Sistani, refuses to participate in politics.
However there are still more than 20 different militias, that started off as volunteer forces to fight the Islamic State, or IS, group, but which are now an official part of the Iraqi security forces, who have decided to compete in the elections, in one form or another.
It is fair to say that these elections will be the most important in Iraq since 2003 and will determine the country’s path in this new era, after the security crisis caused by the Islamic State group.
Iraqi law bans military groups from participating in elections, saying that political parties should not take a military or semi-military form and should not be affiliated with any armed forces. The leaders of formerly-volunteer militias have been allowed to form political entities because they said that their fighters were now at the disposal of the Iraqi government. In reality though, the fighters are still taking orders from their leaders. There are also still dozens of offices that represent the militias in every Iraqi city and town and they appear to act independently – one Iraqi MP, Hakim al-Zamili, head of the parliamentary defence and security committee in parliament, has said the offices should be closed.
The militias are now a legitimate part of Iraq’s security forces, Abbas al-Bayati, a Turkmen MP and member of the parliamentary committee on foreign relations, who is close to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, told NIQASH. “It is the third force after the army and the police,” he said. “We don’t accept attacks on this force. But we do acknowledge that it needs to be organized, and to be distanced from political activities, according to Iraqi law.”
A law was passed that was supposed to deal with the future and the place of the militias in Iraq but important details around the implementation of the law were not spelled out. Some other politicians have demanded that the law be amended to deal with these gaps.
Sunni Muslim politicians have genuine fears that the militias, who are seen as heroic by many locals, will have undue influence on the elections. Last week, Sunni Muslim politicians proposed adding a new line to the election law that said political parties should not have militarized wings and that they should not carry weapons during election campaigning. Shiite Muslim politicians, who lead the government, expressed reservations about this paragraph.
In November last year ten of the armed groups actually formed a political alliance to run in the elections. However after a statement by the cleric al-Sistani, in which he urged the fighters not to participate in the elections as they were, some of the militia leaders involved said they would put their fighters at the Iraqi government’s disposal and hand state-supplied weapons back. However that did not include all the fighters and it’s also highly doubtful that any weapons have been given back.
In fact just two days after the announcement, Qais al-Khazali, the leader of the League of the Righteous militia, appeared on the Israel-Lebanon border, saying that his men would stand with the Lebanese and Palestinian people against any Israeli occupation.
Most of the militias changed their names – or at least, came up with new names for their political entity – before they joined the alliance.
The political alliance the militias had formed late last year, named the Mujahideen coalition, disappeared and the media stopped mentioning it. However since last week, the coalition is back, albeit under a different name.
Iraq’s militias can be seen to be split into two main groups, with one half expressing loyalty to Iraq and the other for neighbouring Iran, which has supported them in the fighting against the Islamic State group. Those factions close to Iran have since joined a new coalition called Fatah, which is headed by Hadi al-Ameri, the leader of one of the militias, the Badr brigades. Most of the militias changed their names – or at least, came up with new names for their political entity – before they joined Fatah.
For example, the Honesty and Loyalty movement is the political front for the Ansar Allah militia, the Islamic movement is an offshoot of the Imam Ali brigades, the Sadiqun (or Truthful) movement belongs to the League of the Righteous militia group, the Muntasirun bloc belongs to the Sayed al-Shuhada Brigades and the Taliyah party is associated with the Khorasani Brigades. Only Hezbollah in Iraq didn’t change its name.
There are certainly ideological differences between all of these factions but the one thing they have in common is their professed allegiance to Iranian religious leader, Ali Khamenei. They also all believe that Iraq and Syria are one battleground and that Iraq should not encourage better relations with the Gulf states; they also all prefer to take a tough attitude towards the country’s Kurdish minority.
Over the past few weeks, the militias formed an alliance with popular Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi. However that alliance quickly collapsed due to the negative response toward it, both from the public and establishment.
As for other militias in Iraq, those led by Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, have gone a different way altogether. His political party has allied itself with the Iraqi Communist party and other civil society groups – this alliance began in 2015 when the two groups cooperated to organize anti-government protests together in Baghdad.
The other cleric representing a new generation in Shiite Muslim politics, Ammar al-Hakim, who is known for his pragmatism, has decided to remain in an alliance with Prime Minister al-Abadi. He withdrew from his traditional political party last year to start a new one of his own and doubtless feels that teaming with the popular PM is the best way to launch his new group.
All of this raises major issues. Will the militias use their powerful reputations, and possibly even their guns, to win votes in the upcoming elections? And what, if anything, can the Iraqi government do about it? What happens in the next few months will answer those questions.