The Iraq Report: Iraqi democracy smoulders as political violence continues

The Iraq Report: Iraqi democracy smoulders as political violence continues
Investigating the fire at the ballot warehouse after the recount was ordered - our weekly round-up of the latest news from Iraq.
7 min read
12 June, 2018
The Iraq Report is a weekly feature at The New Arab.

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A mysterious blaze has engulfed a warehouse containing many of the ballots cast during last month's shock election victory for Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Sairoun coalition.

No party has been spared from allegations of voter fraud, as factional disputes led to a number of high profile attacks against several targets linked to a variety of political movements, suggesting a wave of tit-for-tat violence as politicians try to forge government-forming alliances.

Again, Iraq's domestic affairs are being steered by powerful neighbour Iran, which has a vested interest in ensuring that the next Iraqi government is friendly to its agenda. Iranian officials have continued their lobbying of various political parties in order to boost their preferred candidates, primarily the pro-Iran Conquest Alliance.

However, it is not only Iran intervening in Iraq, but also NATO member Turkey, which has pressed its attack against Kurdish militants in the country's northern Qandil mountain range.

With so many pulling in so many directions, there is a risk that Iraq's fragile stability may again be torn apart at the seams.

Ballot fire mystery after parliament calls for vote recount

Controversy over voter fraud has been buffeting last month's national elections even before the results were fully announced. Since the results, however, the outrage has only intensified.

In recent weeks, Iraq's Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) cancelled the results from 1,021 polling stations. The decision to annul the votes and recount 10 percent of others - amounting to more than a million ballots - was sparked by a decision of the outgoing Iraqi parliament, which again voted last Wednesday in favour of a full manual recount, and to sack the IHEC.

Before the votes could be recounted, a fire tore through Iraq's biggest ballot warehouse, in the Rusafa district in eastern Baghdad, on Sunday. Security officials said they believed the fire was not accidental but was in fact arson aimed at damaging the three million voting papers stored in the facility.

The outgoing Sunni parliamentary speaker, Salim al-Jubouri - who lost his seat in last month's vote - cited the alleged arson as an attempt to hide evidence of electoral fraud. Jubouri went further than the usual calls for a recount and called for entirely new elections.

It is time to stand up for reconstruction rather than the burning of ballot boxes or a new election for the sake of one or two seats

Iraqi security forces arrested three police officers and an IHEC employee on Monday in connection with the blaze, after the Iran-leaning interior minister, Qassem al-Araji, said there was "no doubt that [the fire] was a deliberate act". Although no charges are known to have been brought against the detainees, there is a great amount of cross-party pressure being brought to bear, with the Sadrists believing the sabotage was aimed at making the votes in areas they had won uncountable.

The fire tore through the warehouse where
ballot papers were kept [Al-Araby Al-Jadeed]

Other politicians have suggested it was the Sadrists themselves to blame, particularly as they have the most to lose in any recount. Suspicions were also raised after Sadr released a statement saying: "It is time to stand up for reconstruction rather than the burning of ballot boxes or a new election for the sake of one or two seats."

It is unclear who the perpetrators are, and it is likely to remain a mystery with accusations and counter-accusations to follow. What is clear, however, is that any major changes to the election results could risk a conflagration of violence as rival Shia groups clash with each other for supremacy and to claim power for themselves.

Factional violence continues

Signs of this factional violence have already surfaced in a number of high profile and deadly attacks that are suspected to be linked to the political instability that is wreaking havoc on Baghdad's ability to act as an anchor for the rest of the country.

An arms depot exploded in the Sadrist working class Shia stronghold of Sadr City in northeast Baghdad last Wednesday. A senior police source said that the depot was near a mosque, and the blast led to the deaths of at least seven people. The depot was in a house used by an armed militia - likely one of Sadr's own - and contained heavy weapons, including tank shells, remote explosive charges, and RPG munitions.

While some stated the explosion was an accident, the Sadrists believe that it was an intentional act of sabotage, designed to destabilise Sadr's efforts to form alliances with other parties. However, any deliberate attempt to derail Sadr appears to have failed, as he signed a deal with secular Shia Iyad Allawi's list and fellow Shia cleric Ammar al-Hakim's coalition on Friday.

Three bomb blasts struck the multi-ethnic and disputed city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq overnight last Friday, killing one woman and wounding 18 others. While the use of explosives against civilian targets is often the hallmark of the Islamic State group, the militants have been unusually silent on the attacks and have not claimed responsibility.

Ordinarily, IS is quick to take credit for attacks.

Another possibility is factional violence between disputing parties who accuse each other of electoral fraud. Kirkuk was the epicentre of a major vote scandal last month, as the Kurdish separatist Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) somehow managed to clinch victories in Turkmen- and Arab-majority districts of the oil-rich city.

The International Crisis Group said these results had two "striking incongruities", including the fact that the PUK "won in several non-Kurdish areas where the party is not known to have any support". Kurdish turnout was also low compared with previous elections, and the turnout of Arab and Turkmen voters - not reflected in the amount of seats scooped up by the PUK - raising doubts about the integrity of the vote.

Although political violence has been increasing since the vote, Iraqi civilian deaths are down by 80 percent year on year, according to a report by the United Nations and NGO Iraq Body Count. The UN report attributed this fall to the cessation of major combat operations against IS, and is welcome news to many Iraqis.

Iran, Turkey continue interventions

Following election-related violence and the attempted destruction of Iraq's largest ballot warehouse, Iran has once again despatched its most notorious general, Qassem Soleimani, to ensure its interests are secured.

Soleimani landed in Baghdad late on Sunday after the blaze had broken out, and immediately met with Shia political leaders to discuss the ramifications of the fire and to calculate the extent of the damage caused. Soleimani has kept up his high-profile visits to Iraq, ensuring that his presence is highly visible.

The crisis has taken a new turn as there are accusations of a Shia group involved in the fire

A source, speaking on condition of anonymity to The New Arab's Arabic-language sister site, said Soleimani was in Baghdad to iron out the major differences between the Shia political blocs.

"Soleimani has come to end the tensions between Shia political blocs and the Hashd al-Sha'abi militias," the source said, using the Arabic name for the pro-Iran Shia paramilitary Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), which ran in the elections as part of the Conquest Alliance.

"The crisis has taken a new turn as there are accusations of a Shia group involved in the fire, especially because most of the burnt ballot boxes were from areas won by Muqtada al-Sadr."

While Soleimani acts as peacemaker between his country's various proxies, neighbouring power Turkey has also been busy with military operations in northern Iraq, targeting militants belonging to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Both Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government have criticised both the Turkish incursion and PKK militants - who have been waging a bloody insurrection against the Turkish state for 34 years.

A land operation a little more than 20 kilometres away from the PKK's Qandil mountain headquarters has been bolstered by Turkish air power, with airstrikes last week leading to the deaths of at least six militants and destroying 16 targets of military value.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Monday that his armed forces will drain the "terror swamp" in northern Iraq, echoing the words of US President Donald Trump.

"We've started anti-terror operations in Qandil and Sinjar. We've destroyed 14 important targets with our 20 aircraft," Erdogan told a rally, announcing the operation against the PKK in Iraq's Qandil mountain area.

"Our target is to drain the biggest swamp," he said, adding that intense airstrikes were far from over.

Turkey is facing criticism for its operations in Iraq, with detractors claiming that Erdogan is attempting to capitalise in anti-PKK sentiment in Turkey in the run up to the June 24 presidential elections - an allegation Ankara denies.

The Iraq Report is a weekly feature at The New Arab.

Click here to receive The Iraq Report each week in your inbox