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New political realities emerge in Iraq

Iran’s leaders have been busy claiming victory against Daesh in Iraq. Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), this week crowed: “Daesh was stopped by the entry of Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi (Shiite militia force) into the Iraqi army. The Iraqi army was transformed into a Hezbollah army.”

While it is true that Iran partly succeeded in sectarianizing Iraq’s armed forces, for the most part Iranian proxies had no role in the heaviest fighting inside Mosul because of their culpability for systematic war crimes elsewhere. Just this week lists emerged of 2,000 Sunnis abducted and killed in Babil province during 2014.

Tehran may have achieved its objectives for expanding its military footprint in Iraq, but it has encountered setbacks in its efforts to consolidate political influence. In each round of elections since 2003, Iran sought to gerrymander a coalition of Shiite factions to win a majority and dominate the government. This is easier said than done among Iraq’s fractious Shiite politicians, despite many being in the pay of Tehran.

The past week saw the spectacular implosion of leading Shiite faction the Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq (ISCI). The council was put together in 1982 by Iran. It consisted of Iraqi exiles deployed to fight their own countrymen during the Iran-Iraq war. During this same period — with varying degrees of success — Iran was bankrolling militants in Lebanon, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, intended to forcibly overturn the established orders in those countries.

With ISCI and its armed wing, Badr (previously known as the Badr Brigades), perceived by Iraqis as having treasonously fought on the wrong side during the 1980s war (they were notoriously used by Tehran to torture and interrogate prisoners of war), ISCI was understandably regarded with suspicion when they returned to Iraq in 2003.

Iran spent a small fortune re-establishing ISCI on Iraqi soil. Badr capitalized on its dominance of the Interior Ministry for a wholesale takeover of the security forces. Along with the Islamic Dawa Party (led by former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki from 2006), and Moqtada Al-Sadr’s movement, these Shiite factions and their allies could secure around 50 percent of Parliament seats when Tehran coaxed them to act together.

However, ISCI’s Iranian ties were a vote-loser, and its electoral support had plunged by 2010. This coincided with leadership of ISCI passing to a new generation of the Hakim family. Ammar Al-Hakim had a new vision. He distanced ISCI from Tehran, changed his allegiance from Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei to Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, and attracted young, non-sectarian voters. This approach saw a surge in support for ISCI in the 2013/14 elections. The Sadrist movement underwent a similar transition, shedding its sectarian factions and moving in a nationalist, anti-Tehran direction.

Baghdad’s friends must encourage moderate Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds to seize this opportunity to come together for the sake of national unity. In previous rounds of Iraqi elections, Western and regional powers sought to exert influence long after it was too late, and were thus compelled to back whatever coalition was cooked up in Tehran.

Baria Alamuddin

Not everybody was so pleased about ISCI’s change in fortunes. As Shiite leaders rushed to establish militias in 2014 to fight Daesh, several militia entities were affiliated with ISCI: From the dovish Ashura Companies allied to Al-Hakim and Al-Sistani — to the Jihad Companies and Ansar Al-Aqidah, which were active in Syria and beholden to Iran.

With massive funding channeled to these militias, their affiliation became a major issue. Iran could not afford to see ISCI slipping out of its orbit. As ideological tensions inside ISCI reached boiling point, the inevitable explosion occurred this week, with Al-Hakim announcing his departure to form the “National Wisdom Movement.”

Wrangling continues over who controls ISCI’s assets and where members’ loyalties lie. The test will come during the 2018 elections: Will these two factions bury their differences; or will Al-Hakim participate on a non-sectarian ticket?

The most spectacular political explosion may be yet to happen: The Islamic Dawa Party is bitterly divided between Al-Maliki (who has close ties to Iran’s militia proxies) and Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi, who has tended to oppose the proliferation of sectarian militias. These bitter rivals are competing to dominate the Dawa Party and to become (or remain) prime minister in 2018. It is astonishing that the Dawa Party has thus far avoided disintegration.

Arguably, Al-Abadi, Al-Hakim and Al-Sadr are natural allies on an anti-sectarian ticket. If they succeeded in allying with enough secular, Sunni and Kurdish parties, they could conceivably hold a majority in the next Parliament.

Such a prospect would be a disaster for Iran and Hashd leaders. They will be working furiously over the coming months to ensure that the principal segments of ISCI, the Dawa Party and their allies remain together and constitute the largest parliamentary bloc in 2018. The stakes are huge, representing the choice between an Iraqi state which represents all segments of society and demobilizes Hashd militias (perhaps helped by a fatwa from Al-Sistani), or an Iraqi state beholden to Tehran in which sectarian militias act with impunity and segments of society become marginalized, disenfranchised and perhaps radicalized, as the cycle of fragmentation begins again.

Iran is not all-powerful. When politicians in Iraq, Lebanon and Bahrain refuse to do its bidding and join its payroll, then Tehran is reduced to impotence. As long-standing political entities disintegrate and others emerge, there is now a historic opportunity to remake Iraqi politics, thwarting Tehran’s efforts to empower sectarian and paramilitary figures committed to Iraq’s destruction as a democratic state. Given the nebulous state of Iraqi Shiite politics, numerous scenarios are possible. Baghdad’s friends must encourage moderate Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds to seize this opportunity to come together for the sake of national unity.

In previous rounds of Iraqi elections, Western and regional powers sought to exert influence long after it was too late, and were thus compelled to back whatever coalition was cooked up in Tehran. The Western media has hitherto not even reported the current changes engulfing ISCI and Dawa Party. Let us hope that the diplomatic community is more aware of these developments and the opportunities they present.

• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate, a foreign editor at Al-Hayat, and has interviewed numerous heads of state.