Iraq grapples with Iranian influence ahead of May elections
Iraq grapples with Iranian influence ahead of May elections
- More than 500 members of the paramilitary forces or political figures associated with the Iran-backed PMU are now running for parliament
- Many Iraqis worried that Tehran may be looking to strengthen its political grip on Baghdad through elections
Iranian support and military advisers helped Baghdad’s Shiite-led government beat back the Daesh group. But with militants now largely defeated militarily, Iran’s expanding influence has emerged as one of Iraq’s most divisive issues ahead of the balloting.
That influence has sown fear among Iraq’s disenchanted minority Sunnis, who bore the brunt of the war’s destruction, and has also caused concern in Washington. Despite tensions between the United States and Iran, both remain key allies of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi’s government.
US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis last month accused Iran of “mucking around” in Iraq’s upcoming elections, telling reporters the US has what he called “worrisome evidence” that Iran is funneling “not an insignificant amount of money” into Iraq to try to sway votes. Baghdad rejected the accusation.
Government spokesman Saad Al-Hadithi stressed that the use of foreign money in domestic politics “is illegal and unconstitutional.”
“The government is taking great efforts to hold free and fair elections and prevent the manipulation of election results,” he said.
Both Iran and Iraq are Shiite-majority counties and share deep economic and cultural ties — as well as a 1,500-kilometer (900-mile) border.
The two countries fought a devastating war in the 1980s that left hundreds of thousands dead. But Iranian influence in Iraq has steadily grown since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, marking the start of a prolonged period of sectarian division, extremist violence and political strife.
Under Saddam, many of Iraq’s Shiite political elite spent years in exile in Iran. Since Saddam’s ouster, Iraqi markets have been stocked with Iranian goods and millions of Iranian pilgrims descend on Iraq each year to visit holy shrines in the cities of Samarra, Baghdad, Najaf and Karbala.
When entire divisions of Iraq’s military disintegrated following the fall of the city of Mosul to IS in the summer of 2014, Iranian influence soared.
Weeks before the US began a bombing campaign against Daesh, Iranian advisers and support for Iraqi Shiite militias, which became known as Popular Mobilization Units, helped halt Daesh’s advance, which came dangerously close to Baghdad. From then on, the militias became instrumental in the battle against Daesh.
More than 500 members of the paramilitary forces or political figures associated with the militias are now running for parliament.
Ahmed Al-Asadi is one of the candidates with strong paramilitary ties. An elected member of parliament from Baghdad and former spokesman for the PMU, Al-Asadi cut his ties with the force before launching his re-election bid — a formality required by a governing body overseeing the May vote.
“Iran is the ally of the powerful forces that supported Iraq against terrorism,” he said, dismissing concerns that Tehran plays a destabilizing role in Iraq.
But other Iraqi politicians worry that if a large number of men like Al-Asadi win seats in parliament, Iraq will be even more beholden to its eastern neighbor.
Saleh Al-Mutlaq, a longtime Iraqi politician and former deputy prime minister, said he expects candidates with ties to the Shiite militias to do well in upcoming elections.
“These elections will be disastrous for this country,” he said. “The PMU will be a key player in the political process and this will give Iran a role and a word in forming the government and in choosing a prime minister.”
Iran is not the only one trying to influence the May vote, said Joost Hiltermann, a longtime Iraq researcher with the International Crisis Group.
“Everybody is trying to buy or gain influence, anybody who has a stake in Iraq that is, whether they do it with money or intimidation or other kinds of incentives,” he said. “Ever since there have been elections in 2005, there’s been meddling.”
The future of American forces in Iraq hinges in large part on who becomes Iraq’s next prime minister and who gets to lead the country’s most powerful ministries.
While the Shiite militias racked up several early victories against Daesh, it was US-led coalition airstrikes that allowed Iraqi forces to retake urban areas. Iraq remains deeply dependent on US military aid, training and intelligence sharing.
While Al-Abadi, who is seeking re-election with his recently formed Victory Alliance party, has said he is open to long-term American training programs for Iraqi forces, some of his opponents have taken a much harder line, describing any US forces in Iraq as occupiers.
The US still has more than 5,000 troops in Iraq, supporting its fight against remaining pockets of Daesh, most significantly along Iraq’s volatile border with Syria, in western Anbar province and around the city of Kirkuk — areas that have seen an uptick in militant activity.
“I’m not going to speculate on anything that could or would happen,” coalition spokesman Col. Ryan Dillon said when asked if there is concern that a change in government could affect the US-led coalition’s presence in Iraq.
“We are here at the invitation of the government of Iraq to support their operation to defeat Daesh, and we’ll continue to do so as long as we are invited,” he said, referring to Daesh by an Arabic acronym.
Qatari tribe continues campaign for justice at UN in Geneva
- Al-Ghufran traibe present their case in front of the international community to hold Qatar accountable
- The tribe revealed the crimes against humanity committed by Qatari authorities
GENEVA: Members of a tribe persecuted for more than 20 years by authorities in Qatar appealed for help on Friday from the special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
It was the latest stage in a campaign for justice by the Al-Ghufran tribe, whose members have been stripped of their nationality and suffered torture, forced displacement and deportation.
A delegation from the tribe has taken their case to the 39th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. They said they sought international assistance only after years of being ignored by the government of Qatar, and when they realized that the Qatari Human Rights Council was in league with the regime in Doha to deny them their rights as Qatari citizens.
A member of the tribe, Gaber Saleh Al-Ghufrani, also appealed to the people of Qatar for help. “We call on the elders of the honorable Al-Thani family and to the generous and righteous people of Qatar and to the Al Murrah tribe, known for their nobility and chivalry,” he said.
“We call on you as your brothers, young and old, elders and children, men and women, inside and outside Qatar, and we appeal to your proud Arab origin because the Qatari government has let us down, made untrue claims about us and stripped us of our rights.
“We have been subjected to much injustice and humiliation in our homeland from those who, unfortunately, we thought to be virtuous. We have been discriminated against in the most painful of ways; they have stripped us of our dignity.
“We chose to go to the United Nations and to the international human rights organizations only after the government of our own country closed all ways of appeal, and did not engage or listen to our demands.”
The tribe’s ordeal began in 1996, when some of their members voiced support for Sheikh Khalifa Al-Thani, the Qatari emir deposed the previous year by his son Hamad, father of the current emir, Sheikh Tamim.
About 800 Al-Ghufran families, more than 6,000 people, were stripped of their citizenship and had their property confiscated. Many remain stateless, both in Qatar and in neighboring Gulf countries.
“They have taken away our social, political and economic rights,” said
Jabir bin Saleh Al-Ghufrani, a tribal elder, at a press conference on Thursday. “The Al-Ghufran tribe has been subjected to unjust treatment.
“I left on a vacation in 1996, and now I can never go back to my country. I can go to any place on this earth, but not my home, not Qatar.”
Members of the delegation produced passports, certificates and other documents to show that their right to Qatari citizenship was being denied.
“I ask for my rights. Our people have been asking for our rights for a very long time now and no one has even explained to us why this is happening to us,” said Hamad Khaled Al-Araq.
Another member of the tribe, Hamad Khaled Al-Marri, said on Friday:
“Our issue with the Qatar regime is purely humanitarian and not political, this is why we came here to present our case and our demands to the United Nations Human Rights Council. Our demands are clear: The Qatar regime should be held accountable for the crimes that it has committed against us and other Qataris, and the restoration of our rights.”