Has Soleimani stolen the keys to the Iraqi state?
The clock is ticking down on the narrowing opportunity to rescue Iraq from sectarian, paramilitary, pro-Iranian hegemony.
Not having participated in the elections himself, Al-Sadr presumably envisages himself sitting above the political process in a guardianship (or supreme leader) role. Some observers find this reassuring. However, between 2005 and 2008, Al-Sadr sat back impotently while his Mahdi Army thugs murdered tens of thousands of Sunnis as sickening levels of sectarian bloodletting engulfed Baghdad. Under Sadrist control, the Ministry of Health effectively became the “Ministry of Murder,” with ambulances used by death squads for systematic abductions, and citizens terrified of visiting hospitals lest they be murdered in their beds. Even Al-Sadr’s apologists question his ability to rein in his headstrong, bloodthirsty underlings, and acknowledge his Donald Trump-like tendency for sudden reversals of political views.
Massive campaigns of demographic engineering across central Iraq were insufficient to provide Al-Hashd with sufficient votes to achieve the commanding position they would have liked in these elections. A high proportion of Shiite voters are repulsed by Al-Hashd’s nakedly pro-Iranian agenda. Given this shaky popularity, Al-Hashd has the motive, the means, the opportunity and sufficient ruthlessness to exploit any government role to permanently entrench itself in power.
Al-Hashd leaders explicitly wedded to the Khomeinist doctrine of Wilayat al-Faqih (governance by clerics) are happy to exploit the ballot box, while being ideologically hostile to the values of democracy. It is thus not alarmist to warn that, if Al-Hashd is allowed to consolidate power, 2018 may be the last time Iraqis have a free and fair opportunity to elect candidates of their choice.
Civil tensions are already boiling over, with Sunnis and minorities deeply alienated by the Iraqi state. If sectarian forces yet again hijack the government — despite strong performances by parties which branded themselves as moderates — this may be the moment where Sunnis finally give up on the Iraqi state and start considering other formulas.
How would an Al-Hashd-Sadrist regime govern? Given the host of medium-sized factions and poisonous history between figures like Al-Sadr and Al-Maliki, Iraq’s dysfunctional record of log-jammed legislation looks set to continue. Entrenched in key security ministries, Al-Hashd would, meanwhile, have a free hand to unleash its vision for a paramilitary state by governing through intimidation. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity,” as the poet W.B. Yeats wrote, culminating in the famous lines: “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”
How was this Al-Hashd coup d’etat allowed to happen? In previous Iraqi elections, Western diplomats labored behind the scenes, bringing together moderates and anti-sectarian elements. Have the US, Britain and France today forgotten about Iraq? From the outset, the understanding between Al-Sadr and Abadi should have been rock-solid, blocking all serious prospects of Al-Hashd spoiling the party.
Abadi’s self-serving intransigence and the lack of coherent activity by those who desire a democratic Iraq gave Soleimani the crack in the door he needed to barge in and impose his own agenda. So much for Trump’s tough talk about slamming the door on Tehran’s meddling in the Arab world.
Maybe there is time to salvage an Al-Sadr-Abadi alliance. Maybe there is time to defeat Al-Hashd’s efforts and prevent a scenario that appeared almost inconceivable just a few days ago. The clock is ticking down on the narrowing opportunity to rescue Iraq from sectarian, paramilitary, pro-Iranian hegemony. Are those who enjoy the capacity to act even aware of this existential threat facing Iraq?
• 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.