A cursory look at Iraq’s recent history would strongly suggest that Iraqis are resilient. Over the past four decades, they have survived the oppression of Saddam Hussein’s rule and his aggression against their country’s neighbors, which rendered Iraq an international pariah. As soon as Saddam had concluded a bloody and costly eight-year war with his equally aggressive neighbor Iran, he plunged the entire Middle East into crisis by invading Kuwait.In 2003, the United States had tired of Saddam, his intransigence and his destabilizing foreign policy. A long, slow and painful transition followed the US war, thanks in large measure to former Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki’s ineptitude and sectarian policies. Not only did his divisive approach negatively impact the social fabric of the country, but it also left Iraq’s Sunni minority vulnerable to the deceit and brutality of Daesh.
Al-Maliki’s approach paved the way for Daesh to take control of large swaths of Iraqi territory, including one of its largest cities, Mosul. In 2014, Haider Abadi took over as Prime Minister. Since then, Iraq has made significant strides in terms of not only expelling Daesh from virtually all the territories it controlled, but also in improving Iraq’s relations with some of its neighbors, including Saudi Arabia. However, the upcoming May 2018 parliamentary elections will likely prove to be an important test of the current and encouraging path Iraq is on.
Over the past week, two events rocked Baghdad; one literally, the other figuratively. The first was Monday’s double suicide bombing that killed more than two dozen people in an open market. This was the first such attack since Abadi declared victory over Daesh late last year. The incident caused some concern inside and outside Iraq about the prospect of Daesh returning to its roots as a militant group conducting terrorist operations of varying scales.
May elections could be a crucial moment in country’s recovery, with twin threats of Daesh terrorism and Al-Maliki’s divisive policies looming over the long-suffering population.
May elections could be a crucial moment in country’s recovery, with twin threats of Daesh terrorism and Al-Maliki’s divisive policies looming over the long-suffering population.Fahad Nazer
A day earlier, Abadi, who is credited with leading the fight against Daesh and improving Iraq’s relations with its neighbors, announced that he would be running in the May election as the head of a coalition that includes leaders of the Shiite militias known as the Popular Mobilization Units. The move was seen as part of an effort by Abadi to secure a comfortable majority. As was reported in Arab News, “Abadi had been in coalition talks since Thursday with Al-Fattah Alliance, a group of the most powerful Shiite armed factions led by Hadi Al-Amiri, commander of the Badr Organization, in addition to the Iraqi Islamic Supreme Council and other political parties.”
The formation of the “Victory Alliance” caused immediate concern not just among the Iraqi Sunni minority, but even some Shiite leaders, including cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr. “I am stunned to see the course taken by brother Abadi, who we had thought to be a leading advocate of reform,” Al-Sadr said in a statement. Others expressed concern about the legacy of the PMUs, which many Sunnis view as sectarian in nature. The new coalition was disbanded 24 hours later.
In a statement on Tuesday, Abadi made it clear that the elections will go ahead in May, as stipulated in the constitution. However, some Iraqi Sunnis have advised that, given that thousands of people are yet to return to the cities and towns from which Daesh was expelled, the election should be postponed to allow them time to return and fully participate. This, of course, is in addition to the question of Kurdistan and its quest for autonomy, and even independence.
The suicide attack on Monday was a reminder that, while Iraq has made very important strides in its quest toward peace, stability and prosperity, Daesh and other violent extremists will do all they can to stifle this progress and stoke the flames of sectarianism. It is also worth noting that Al-Maliki, who is currently vice president, is also planning to run in the parliamentary elections. His sectarian policies and tendency to be beholden to Iran, even at the expense of the interest and sovereignty of Iraq, could potentially derail the progress that has been made.
Abadi has shown himself to be a capable leader, who could return a united, stable and prosperous Iraq to its rightful place as one of the pillars of the Arab world. The good people of Iraq deserve nothing less.
• Fahad Nazer is a political consultant to the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington and an International Fellow at the National Council on US Arab Relations. He does not represent or speak on behalf of either organization.