Call to action - GulfToday

Call to action

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


Iraqis register to obtain their voting cards ahead of the upcoming parliamentary elections.

Iraqis are set to go to the polls on Sunday to elect representatives for the 329-member national assembly. The election was initially scheduled for June but postponed at the request of the election commission which sought more time to organise. Around 300 foreign observers from the United Nations and European Union have been invited to monitor polling to ensure the popular consultation is peaceful and free and fair. 

This election is being held early to meet the primary demand of tens of thousands of Iraqis who, two years ago began to take to streets and squares to protest against the government headed by Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, mismanagement, corruption, economic collapse, militias, and the sectarian system of governance. The latter was imposed by the US after its 2003 invasion and occupation of that country. The anti-sectarian, independence-minded protesters also sought Iraqi freedom from interference from both the US and Iran.

It is ironic that neither anti-militia Abdul Mahdi nor his successor Mustafa al-Kadhimi, independent figures who lack political bases, would have become prime minister without the support of the militias which are determined to keep the central government weak and dependent. Neither had the authority to address the demands of the protesters. Al-Kadhimi called an early election which the militias expect to secure control of parliament. 

Al-Kadhimi has urged all Iraqis to cast their ballots and has warned them not to “trust fake promises, listen to threats and [submit to] intimidation” by the militias.

President of the Kurdish region, Nechirvan Barzani went further, saying “the majoritarian mentality, establishing militias, crippling institutions and sectarian civil war would not result in a stable Iraq.”

Both men have pressed for a large turn-out in the hope that Iraqis will be able to effect changes through the ballot box that they have not been able to achieve by mass protests across the country which commenced on Oct.1, 2019. While some protest groups have entered the contest, 40 others, which are seeking wide-ranging reforms, are boycotting the poll, reducing voters choices.

The main challenge the opposition faces is hegemony of Iraqi militias and the parties and blocs they have created to ensure their predominance by preventing the emergence of popular leaders who do not have their backing.

There are two score militias, the majority Shia and pro-Iranian. The most prominent are the Badr Corps/Organisation, and the Mahdi Army, both of which are accused of sectarian violence and murder. While they rose to power during the US occupation, they gained legitimacy and considerable authority when they joined the 2014-19 US-led campaign against Daesh. Both call for an end to the US military presence in Iraq.

The Badr Brigade, headed by Hadi al-Amiri, was formed of Iraqi defectors and exiles in 1982 by Iran as the military wing of the Shia fundamentalist Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.  Its members fought alongside the Iranian army during the eight-year war with Iraq (1980-88) and returned to Iraq in 1991 to fight against the Iraqi army during the short-lived Shia revolt that followed the first US war on Iraq and in 2003 to battle Iraqi Baathist and Sunni partisans opposed to the US occupation. 

The Mahdi Army was established by Iraqi nationalist Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in 2003 to confront both US forces and Sunni insurgents. Sadr claims to represent the poor and says he seeks justice for all as well as the provision of goods and services for the deprived populace.

While he is not politically allied to or dependent on Iran, he did spend several years upgrading his clerical credentials at Shia seminaries in the Iranian city of Qom and has, occasionally, submitted to Iranian pressures.  He initially intended to boycott the election but changed his mind. His party has 54 seats in the current parliament, the largest number, followed by al-Amiri’s bloc with 48.

While al-Kadhimi has been unable to rein in the militias and carry out reforms demanded by the October movement, he has attempted to mend relations with Sunni neighbours and tried to make Iraq a centre for dialogue among disputing regional actors.  He has hosted five bilateral meetings between Saudi and Iranian officials in an effort to achieve reconciliation between the region’s Sunni and Shia heavyweights. Riyadh broke off diplomatic relations with Tehran in 2016 following violent protests in Iran over the Saudi execution of dissident Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr.

On Aug.28, al-Kadhimi convened a conference with the aim of reducing regional tensions. Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Jordan’s King Abdullah, Qatari Emir Shaikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani and French President Emmanuel Macron attended while the Emirates and Kuwait were represented by their premiers and Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia by their foreign ministers. 

On the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, Iraq’s ambassador held another gathering at his New York home where Iranian foreign minister met foreign ministers and senior officials of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, France, the European Union, the Arab League, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, and the Gulf Cooperation Council.

Finally al-Kadhimi has promoted a tripartite economic grouping with Jordan and Egypt with the object boosting trade and cooperation among these countries. 

These efforts have made al-Kadhimi a useful if not indispensable actor on the regional level and have promoted him and Iraq as a deal-maker at a time the US is stepping back from involvement in regional affairs and pivoting toward Asia where the US is focused on countering the rise of China. It remains to be seen if once the election is over the militias will once again back him for the premiership.  This would suit Iran which would benefit if Shia-majority Iraq normalises relations with its Sunni neighbours and re-emerges as a useful player in the Byzantine politics of the region.

Photo: AFP

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