In theory, Iraq’s constitution bans paramilitary groups from political participation. In practice, this role has been circumvented through militias setting up political wings and dispatching veteran fighters off to parliament. Given the high profile role of Hashd fighters in the battle against Daesh, they are seeking to capitalize on their enhanced prestige to win leading positions and dictate Iraq’s political future.
Elections lists will be distinguished by the conspicuous presence of militia factions: Entities such as Asaib Ahlulhaq, Badr and the Sadrist Movement, all under the Hashd umbrella, have made only superficial attempts to separate their paramilitary and political activities.
This issue was spotlighted in recent days when Hadi Al-Amiri emerged as a candidate for leadership of Iraq’s principal Shiite coalition, the National Iraqi Alliance (NIA). With current and former prime ministers Haidar Al-Abadi and Nouri Al-Maliki (whose fierce rivalry is tearing the Da’wah Party apart) fielding competing candidates, Al-Amiri emerged as a consensus option: Yet he personifies this forbidden amalgamation of militarism and politics.
Al-Amiri emerged through the ranks of the Badr Brigades, an Iraqi paramilitary force established by Iran in the 1980s. Badr was resented by many Iraqi Shiites for having fought on the “wrong side” during the Iran-Iraq war. Yet thanks to massive Iranian patronage, he entrenched himself as a major Iraqi political force after 2003. Under America’s watch and Al-Amiri’s leadership, Badr thoroughly infiltrated Iraq’s Interior Ministry, with thousands of Badr personnel shoe-horned into the security forces. These forces were culpable in torturing and killing tens of thousands of Iraqis.
Following Daesh’s takeover in 2014, Badr expanded massively as the dominant component of Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi, with perhaps around 30,000 personnel. Al-Amiri was granted security control of Diyala province, which suffered sectarian cleansing and well-documented massacres against Sunnis. Diyala effectively became an Iranian province — even becoming incorporated into Iran’s electricity grid and infrastructure. Al-Amiri’s 2014 demand to be given the Interior Ministry portfolio was vetoed — so he granted the position to one of his Badr subordinates, triggering a renewed phase of sectarianization of the security forces.
Al-Amiri should obviously be banned from politics; both because of his paramilitary role and because by any sane criteria he should be facing war crimes charges. Could he use the stepping stone of the NIA leadership role to become Iraq’s next prime minister? Many laugh at the prospect, seeing him as too unrefined for such a position. Make no mistake, Iraq under Al-Amiri would be an Iranian client state, governed on sectarian lines under a leader with no reservations about forcibly repressing rivals and other sects.
Although Al-Maliki was cultivated by Iran as prime minister, there is little love lost between them: Tehran and Al-Maliki depended on each other, but barely trusted each other. Al-Amiri, on the other hand, is a creation of Tehran — he has joint Iranian nationality, lived much of his life in Iran, speaks Farsi and has an Iranian wife.
Militia fighters are constitutionally barred from politics, but fractured alliances mean Hadi Al-Amiri could even become prime minister — effectively making Iraq a province of Iran.
Negotiations for NIA leadership last week were given additional momentum through the visit of Iranian heavyweight Mahmoud Shahroudi, who lobbied Shiite leaders to make progress in appointing a Tehran-approved candidate. Leading Najaf clerics pointedly refused to meet Shahroudi. This snub wasn’t unexpected: Shahroudi is favored by Tehran to succeed Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani as the dominant Shiite authority — something vigourously opposed by Najaf clerical circles.
Shahroudi’s visit highlights the complexities of Iran’s influence on Iraqi politics: Tehran will certainly have its say on the outcome, but only when personal and factional rivalries have played themselves out. Tehran has always sought to unify Shiite factions and ensure a narrow majority in Iraq’s parliament, thus allowing the Islamic Republic to wield control from behind the scenes. However, internal rivalries have frequently left the field divided, creating a window of opportunity for those opposed to Iranian domination.
Within the Shiite camp itself, Prime Minister Al-Abadi, cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr and Ammar Al-Hakim may succeed in forming a nationalist coalition. If these relative moderates align with Sunni, Kurdish and secular figures, then the anti-Iran camp could conceivably have a working majority. Conversely, if Tehran succeeds in uniting Shiite factions and dividing its opponents, then they would have the final say.
Moreover, the proposed Kurdish independence referendum has become a major source of friction; yet compromises are possible because Shiite parties are seeking to outbid each other and secure a parliamentary alliance with the Kurds. Sunnis meanwhile are resentful about thousands of citizens displaced and killed in the fighting against Daesh. The ongoing turmoil in these provinces means that Sunni factions are in disarray regarding elections and consolidating a vision for Iraq.
The Shiite electorate is an unknown quantity. The Hashd gained massive legitimacy by portraying itself as having saved Iraq from Daesh, and Al-Amiri and his allies would capitalize on this. However, Iraqi Shiites are habitually suspicious of Iran and desire politicians who can deliver jobs and services — not corruption, bloodshed and politicization.
After the downfall of Daesh, Iraq stands at a crossroads over many fundamental issues, centered on whether the vision of a democratic and pluralistic state can be salvaged, or whether Iraq reverts to being a fragmented and tormented nation, dominated by whichever foreign-backed faction captures the levers of power for themselves. More than anything, the outcomes of the 2018 elections will determine this path.
The coming months will be a period of intense political jostling. No less than the soul and identity of Iraq are at stake — Arab or Persian?
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and a foreign editor at Al-Hayat, and has interviewed numerous heads of state.