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Iraq's Most Controversial Political Party:
The Source Of Their Power + What They Want In Government

Mustafa Habib
The alliance closely affiliated with Iraq’s often-controversial Shiite Muslim militias did well in recent elections. But how did they manage to do better than more established parties? And what do they want now?
14.06.2018  |  Baghdad
Fighters from Shiite Muslim volunteer militias celebrate victory at Baiji. (photo: أحمد الربيعي)
Fighters from Shiite Muslim volunteer militias celebrate victory at Baiji. (photo: أحمد الربيعي)

It was not a surprise when a new Iraqi political alliance, representing the interests of the Shiite Muslim militias, did well in the recent Iraq elections. The militias started out as volunteer organisations called into action to fight the extremist group known as the Islamic State and were drawn from the civilian population; many lost their lives and, despite controversies about revenge acts and looting, were seen as heroes for volunteering.

Nonetheless the fact that they came second, gaining 47 seats and coming in second to the party led by the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, wasn’t quite what some expected.

The Fatah, or Conquest, alliance is led by Hadi al-Ameri, a former government minister-turned soldier, leader of the Badr brigades and well known for his closeness to Iran and his friendship with senior Iranian soldier, Qasim Soleimani.  It is made up of 18 different political parties, most of which are backed by armed militias. The Badr group is probably the most prominent in the group but the alliance also includes political wings of parties like Hezbollah in Iraq and the League of the Righteous. And they managed to do better in the elections, held May 12, than the two other alliances – that led by Haider al-Abadi and another led by cleric Ammar al-Hakim - who formerly got many of the Shiite Muslim votes in Iraq.

So what were the factors that contributed to the Conquest alliance’s second placing?

no more status-quo

When the extremist Islamic State, or IS, group sparked the security crisis in 2014, that would impact the country so critically over the next three years, a Shiite Muslim-led government was in charge. The IS group exploited opportunities – political unrest, sectarian divisions, a lack of security, a mismanaged military – to take control of certain cities and towns in Iraq. Locals believed that many of these things were the fault of the current government.

Many Shiites came to believe that the Shiite Muslim political parties that had ruled for over a decade bore a large part of the responsibility for the IS group’s development.

Meanwhile the Shiite Muslim militias formed in response to the security crisis and were seen as a new hope. They were defended their own homes and also went to fight the IS group on its territory. Locals came to see them as a group with potential – not just in security terms but also with the potential to resolve other longstanding problems in Iraq, such as the wobbling economy and the lack of state services.

In 2015, Shiite Muslim militia leaders began to exploit that vision of them and started making political statements. The leader of the League of the Righteous held a press conference commenting on the nature of Iraqi politics and how a change was needed. In a year marked by extremely high summer temperatures and the deterioration of power supplies, a statement from Hezbollah in Iraq said it would hold the minister of power to account and called on police not to use violence against demonstrators who were protesting the power cuts. Such calls were unusual, coming from a militia. A few weeks before the Iraqi election, the militias also added the fight against corruption to their list of priorities.

“The fight against corruption is the first step we will take when we get into parliament,” Abdul Amir Fattah Hassan, a member of the Conquest alliance, told NIQASH. “For too long, personal interests have disrupted state services.”

influence on the ground

 

All of the Shiite Muslim militias have offices in most Shiite Muslim-majority neighbourhoods, and also in some non-Shiite and mixed neighbourhoods. Thousands of Shiite Muslim fighters are still deployed in towns and cities around Iraq, including in some Sunni Muslim-majority areas.

Sunni politicians in the province of Diyala have said the Conquest alliance’s election success can also be attributed to fear in those Sunni areas. They say that some tribes were afraid of the Shiite Muslim militias based in their neighbourhoods, so voted for the Shiite party as a way of avoiding future problems with the armed men around them.

Additionally the militias have built up a good relationship with some Sunni tribes – such as, for example, the Jibour tribe in Salahaddin. This has also seen Sunni voters choose the Conquest alliance.

voter turnout

The election turnout in May was the lowest it has been in Iraq for several elections. Only around 44.5 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots. Partially this was due to overwhelming dissatisfaction with, and despondence about, the political process in Iraq. Many of those who did not vote said they didn’t want to, because nothing ever really changes in Iraq.

According to the Iraqi election authorities, 10,840,989 Iraqis voted in May. The Conquest alliance got 1,397,561 of those, or around 13.4 percent of all the votes. If one considers that the estimated number of members of the militias is 120,000, then you can imagine that each fighter’s friends and family and the fighter themselves may have voted for the Conquest alliance. For obvious reasons, they were more motivated to vote, while the voters who traditionally supported other Shiite Muslim parties, were not as motivated and indeed, may not have gone to the polls at all.

Many of the men who volunteered for the militias came from within Shiite communities right around the country. As fighting went on, there were thousands of casualties and deaths, all of which naturally aroused a heartfelt response in Shiite Muslim communities. Sons, brothers and fathers were fighting and dying, or being wounded. Televised scenes showing funerals and hospitals had a lingering impact.

“I attended the funerals of so many of my neighbours, my relatives and the sons of friends who were killed fighting the terrorists,” says Haytham al-Rubaie, a 57-year old lawyer, working in Baghdad. He believes that the many sacrifices made by the volunteers in the militias mean that the Conquest alliance now deserves a place in Iraqi politics. So he voted for them.

Other Shiite Muslim parties did not have a military wing fighting the IS group, or if they did, the militias didn’t have as much impact, or as much press, as those connected to the Conquest alliance.

 

Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, one of the most senior commanders in the Shiite Muslim militias, with Iraqi army officers.

Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, one of the most senior commanders in the Shiite Muslim militias, with Iraqi army officers.

 

 Currently it is hard to say what impact the Conquest alliance will have, when the complicated task of forming the next Iraqi government begins in earnest – that is, once issues around electoral fraud have been resolved. There are several issues the Conquest alliance has a particular stake in. These include the conflict in Syria – where some of the Iran-allied militias are still fighting as part of the pro-Assad-government forces. It also includes debate around the ongoing presence of US troops in Iraq: the militias attached to the Conquest alliance want them out and have threatened to target them. And finally the growing Iraqi détente with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states – with mostly Sunni Muslim leaderships – also upsets the Conquest alliance. Whoever wants to rule in a government featuring the militia-related political parties is going to have to be prepared to compromise on those issues.

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