Iraqi election results confirm Iran’s unpopularity
Iraqi voters this month made it clear they have had enough of Iran’s violent interference in the country’s politics. Under the direction of Tehran’s Quds Force — the external operations arm of its Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps — Iraqi Shiite militias have assassinated dozens of activists, suppressed free speech and boasted about their allegiance to the Iranian regime. However, in the Oct. 10 elections, voters punished the militias’ candidates, who saw their bloc shrink from 48 to just 14 of the 329 seats in the Iraqi parliament. This outcome made clear that it was no anomaly when, over the past two years, Iraqis set fire to Iranian consulates and tore down posters of Iranian leaders. Rather, such events reflected the deepening anger against Tehran.
Other aspects of the election results confirmed that Iran’s popularity among Iraqis is tanking. The bloc of Shiite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr won 73 seats, likely making it the biggest bloc in parliament. Al-Sadr campaigned on the slogan, “No East and no West,” which was first used by the founder of the Iranian regime, Ayatollah Khomeini, who imagined Tehran’s foreign policy as being equidistant from the US-led Western camp and its Russian-led rival. In effect, Al-Sadr called for an Iraqi foreign policy aligned with neither America nor Iran.
His intentions are harder to discern. In 2005, Al-Sadr formed a militia that warred with US troops and enjoyed extensive Iranian support. But in 2008, the firebrand cleric disbanded his militia, although elements within it became the nucleus of the current crop of Iranian-backed Shiite forces. Meanwhile, Al-Sadr himself became an ardent supporter of disbanding all militias.
At least compared to the results of the previous elections in 2018, Al-Sadr’s victory is good news for America. The bad news is that he is a mercurial populist who has often expressed antagonism toward the US and its role in Iraq.
However, Al-Sadr understands that, even with his impressive bloc of 73 seats, his candidates will need allies to attain the 165-seat majority required to form a government. He could potentially form an anti-Iran bloc by teaming up with the Sunnis and Kurds that are aligned with Washington and its allies.
The good news in that regard is that anti-Tehran Sunnis and Kurds also won big at the polls. The only consolation for Iran’s allies was the strong performance of former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, whose coalition picked up 37 seats. While Al-Maliki supports militias, his opportunism has kept him at arm’s length from Tehran, which does not consider him to be a reliable ally.
Sunnis are divided into two rival camps: Taqaddom, which is headed by incumbent Speaker Mohammed Al-Halbousi, and Azm, which is led by Khamis Al-Khanjar. Taqaddom won 43 seats, while Azm collected 15.
Among the Kurds, the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Masoud Barzani, which is aligned with the US, won 32 seats, beating its rival, the pro-Iran Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, whose bloc shrank to 15 seats.
With Taqaddom and the KDP, Al-Sadr could form a bloc of 148 seats, elect a speaker, then a president, and win the call to form a Cabinet. Pro-Tehran lawmakers will likely try to lure the KDP away from Al-Sadr, mainly by promising it the presidency, which is currently held by Iraq’s other Kurdish party. While the presidency is ceremonial, it carries weight for its representation of one of Iraq’s three big ethno-sectarian blocs.
Al-Sadr could potentially form an anti-Iran bloc by teaming up with the Sunnis and Kurds that are aligned with Washington and its allies.
Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Tehran and its proxies in Iraq have pursued one goal: The creation of a weak state controlled by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the Quds Force and IRGC-backed militias.
Thanks to both Iranian meddling and the fragmentation of candidates into so many small blocs, Cabinet formation in Iraq might prove to be a lengthy and arduous process. This may give incumbent Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi an advantage. Unlike his predecessors, Al-Kadhimi did not form a party of his own to contest the elections. For staying neutral, he might once again emerge as the center of a consensus that could end the stalemate between the blocs and form a new Cabinet.
If Al-Kadhimi does stay in power, he might again urge Washington to withdraw its remaining 2,500 military advisers, presumably to take away the excuse that pro-Iran militias use to justify their continued armament and de facto independence from authorized chains of command.
This time, however, Washington can bring to Al-Kadhimi’s attention that only a small fraction of Iraqis buy into such excuses. Given the clear popular mandate in favor of disbanding the militias, America should not cut and run, but should strictly condition any downscaling of its adviser corps on Baghdad becoming able to stand on its own in the face of both religious extremist terrorists, such as Daesh, and state-sponsored terrorists like the pro-Iran militias.
- Hussain Abdul-Hussain is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. Twitter: @hahussain