Vote violations prove militancy is kiss of death for Iraqi democracy

Vote violations prove militancy is kiss of death for Iraqi democracy

Within a couple of weeks, Prime Minister Haidar Abadi went from vigorously defending the results of the Iraqi elections to supporting calls for a manual recount. It became obvious that fraud allegations were not simply isolated cases by disgruntled parties. Indeed, a common denominator across the worst-affected provinces in central Iraq is that they are largely under the control of Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi paramilitary forces.

These elections made a laughing stock of Iraq’s constitution, which outlaws participation of militants in the vote. Al-Hashd leaders made a temporary show of removing paramilitary uniforms, yet centered their campaigns around boasting about their supposed military achievements. More dangerous still, these forces used demographic engineering in support of political goals.

It should be structurally impossible for sectarian Shiite forces to gain first and second place in the provinces of Diyala and Salahuddin, which historically had predominant Sunni majorities. But Diyala and Salahuddin lost more than half their Sunni populations due to chronic instability, with Al-Hashd militias forcing Sunni families to flee, terrorized by sectarian massacres, destruction of homes and systematic human rights abuses. 

Displaced populations were blocked from obtaining documentation allowing them to return and vote, along with countless other forms of obstruction and intimidation. In Salahuddin, intra-Sunni strife was exacerbated by patronizing certain tribes for integration into Al-Hashd. Other tribes faced gangster-like threats that safe return of displaced citizens was only possible if they voted the “right” way. 

Diyala since 2014 has been under the control of Al-Hashd prime ministerial candidate Hadi Amiri, who has a long history of overseeing appalling sectarian violence. Diyala became a closed province, almost impossible to enter through a forest of roadblocks, allowing sectarian cleansing to occur behind closed doors. Ironically, it is easier to enter Diyala from Iran, with their economies becoming closely enmeshed. 

In Nineveh, Al-Hashd compelled Shiite communities to vote for puppet Christian candidates affiliated with paramilitary forces, thus capturing two seats supposedly guaranteed for minorities. Observers reported batches of thousands of election IDs offered for sale.

If the review of the voting goes no further than a manual recount, this will not scratch the surface of the most outrageous violations. The toxic role of paramilitary forces must be investigated, leaving the door open to restaging the vote where systematic manipulation sabotaged the result.

Aggressive and corrupt tactics by Al-Hashd factions often alienated their supposed Shiite grassroots support. Muqtada Al-Sadr performed strongly precisely because of his credibility in campaigning against corruption, sectarianism and militancy. Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s call for Iraqis to shun failed and corrupt political figures undermined Al-Hashd cronies such as Nouri Maliki. Al-Sadr’s pledges to address poverty were far more successful than the blunt Al-Hashd message of: “We took up arms for you. Now you must vote for us.”

Al-Hashd lost the elections, gaining less than 15 percent of seats, but they could still come out on top in the complex brinkmanship required to form a Cabinet. They argue that as the second-largest force, they deserve a lucrative slice of the government cake. If things do not go their way, Al-Hashd leaders could mobilize foot soldiers in a violent campaign of civil disobedience, rendering Iraq ungovernable. 

With the inclusion of factions led by Iyad Alawi and Ammar Hakim, Al-Sadr has made progress in forming a coalition. But he must rapidly make his alliance as wide and strong as possible, preempting Al-Hashd efforts to outmaneuver him.

Iraq’s elections were a textbook example of why armed groups must never participate in politics.

Baria Alamuddin

Democracy at gunpoint is not democracy. These elections were a textbook example of why armed groups must never participate in politics, particularly as Al-Hashd forces were largely armed, trained and mobilized by Iran. Given that these forces deployed such brutal tactics in pursuit of power, we shudder to imagine what maneuvers they would deploy to retain their dominance indefinitely if they had won outright. 

In Lebanon, Hezbollah uses military muscle to reinforce its political might and vice versa, widening its stranglehold on society through an octopus-like network of social and theological institutions. In Iraq and Syria, sectarian cleansing is part of a ruthless strategy for consolidating control under a pro-Iran orthodoxy. 

Elections will eventually be held in Syria, allowing President Bashar Assad to cynically claim a democratic mandate, but only once dissenting communities have been purged, with pliant, freshly naturalized subjects transplanted in their place. 

These techniques of “engineered democracy” were pioneered in Tel Aviv and perfected by Tehran: Facts on the ground, achieved through war crimes and demographic engineering, obtain a sheen of legitimacy through the ballot box, before being presented to the world as an incontrovertible fait accompli.  

Al-Sadr must resolutely implement his calls for disarmament of militants, even though Al-Hashd elements will fight this initiative tooth and nail. Constitutional loopholes and legislative fudges must not act as an excuse for inaction. 

Straightforward incorporation into the security forces, or consolidation as a legalized parallel force, makes them more dangerous. When these same militants infiltrated the security forces after 2003, the result was a bloodbath, as segments of the police mutated into death squads and purged Baghdad of half its Sunni population.

Success or failure for the coming government must be measured by its record in dismantling non-state militias. Only then can Iraq survive as a sovereign and democratic state whose elected leaders wield a monopoly over the use of force.

Iran’s Maj. Gen. Qassim Soleimani is employing every trick in the book — threats, blackmail, bribes, sowing divisions — to ensure Al-Hashd is a cornerstone of any future government. Politicians from across the spectrum must resist Soleimani’s attempts to divide and conquer. Instead, they should rally around Al-Sadr’s vision for a broad governing coalition that puts Iraqi interests first, leaving foreign, sectarian and paramilitary interests locked out in the cold.

• 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 has interviewed numerous heads of state.

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