January 26, 2018 | Policy Brief

National Elections in Iraq Set for May

January 26, 2018 | Policy Brief

National Elections in Iraq Set for May

This week, the Iraqi parliament approved Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s proposal to hold national elections on May 12. The announcement follows the breakdown of Abadi’s short-lived electoral alliance with a coalition of parties tied to Iranian-backed Shiite militias.

On January 21, Iraq’s Supreme Federal Court ruled that elections must be held within the timeframe specified by the Iraqi constitution. Sunni and Kurdish lawmakers had called for delaying the vote to allow the return of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis displaced by the fight against the Islamic State. The next day, parliament approved the date proposed by Abadi.

The American embassy in Baghdad announced that the U.S. government “strongly supports” the election in May, agreeing with the high court that a postponement “would set a dangerous precedent, undermining the constitution.” At the same time, the embassy declared its commitment to ensuring that internally displaced Iraqis have the opportunity to vote.

Abadi, who assumed office in 2014, announced he would seek reelection as head of the Victory Alliance (Nasr al-Iraq, literally “Victory of Iraq”). The prime minister described his electoral list as “cross-sectarian,” yet in a surprise move, he announced the inclusion in his list of the Conquest Alliance (Al-Fatah al-Mubin, literally “Manifest Conquest”), composed of parties affiliated with Iranian-backed Shiite militias, some of which fought against the United States before its 2011 withdrawal while others are reportedly responsible for sectarian atrocities.

A Kurdish journalist reported that Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force, travelled to Baghdad to broker the deal between Abadi and the Conquest Alliance. The leader of the Conquest bloc is Hadi al-Amiri, secretary general of the Badr Organization, which won 22 out of 328 seats in the 2014 parliamentary elections and was originally founded by the IRGC to fight on Iran’s behalf against Iraq.

The alleged meeting between Soleimani and Abadi supposedly included Amiri and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the leader of Kataib Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy force that the U.S. has designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. The Conquest Alliance also includes pro-Iran figures like Qais al-Khazali, the leader of Asaib Ahl al-Haq (League of the Righteous) militia, which also has deep ties to the Quds Force and claims to have conducted more than 6,000 attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq, many with lethal rounds known as explosively formed penetrators, or EFPs.

The partnership between Abadi and the Conquest Alliance collapsed after less than 48 hours. Popular Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr denounced the partnership as “abhorrent” and said it would “pave the way for the return of corruption and sectarianism.” After fighting against U.S. and Iraqi government forces with support from Iran, Sadr has rebranded himself as an opponent of Iranian influence, made a rare visit to Saudi Arabia, and called for “dismantling” the Population Mobilization Forces (PMF), a government-supported organization dominated by Iranian-backed Shiite militias. After the breakdown, Soleimani visited Baghdad again, apparently to reduce tensions among Shiite blocs. After the breakdown, Soleimani visited Baghdad again, apparently to reduce tensions among Shiite blocs, yet the Iranian general only met with Shiite leaders, not Abadi.

From an American perspective, Abadi is clearly an improvement over his predecessor Nouri al-Maliki, yet the U.S. should be extremely wary of Abadi’s efforts to broaden his Shiite base by reaching out to Iranian-backed parties. Resisting Iranian attempts to subjugate Iraq is integral to the U.S. strategy of countering “the full range of Iran’s destructive actions.” To that end, the U.S. must follow through on its pledge to ensure that displaced Sunni and Kurdish Iraqis are able to vote on May 12, since their representation will ensure a more pluralistic and representative government. As it did in the war against the Islamic State, the U.S. should help Iraqi leaders work together to meet Iraqi citizens’ demands so they are less reliant on Iran.

Romany Shaker is an Arabic-language research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @RomanySh.

Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.