The Iraq Report: Post-election horse-trading kicks off

The Iraq Report: Post-election horse-trading kicks off
Our weekly round-up of events in Iraq this week focuses on negotiations to form a government after no one party won an overall majority.
7 min read
23 May, 2018
The Iraq Report is a weekly feature at The New Arab.

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Now that Muqtada al-Sadr's Sairoun coalition has been officially declared the winner of the Iraqi parliamentary elections, the Shia cleric has already begun the customary negotiations and haggling that has characterised Iraqi politics since the US-led invasion in 2003.

Every Iraqi government since the reign of toppled Baathist dictator Saddam Hussein has been a coalition, preventing any one bloc from gaining a majority, and requiring extensive and lengthy negotiations.

However, Iraqis often fear how these negotiations tend to be coupled with political violence as the various coalitions attempt to determine the final make-up of the next government. Such violence is also often supported by powerful foreign powers, particularly Iran, who have maintained their influence in Iraq by taking advantage of the lack of unity or strong governments.

With the United States now openly warning Iran not to interfere in Iraq's internal affairs after Washington pulled out of the nuclear deal, Iraq could once again turn into a heated battleground between the two rivals.

Violence feared

The modern Iraqi political system has a few defining characteristics, one of which is the lengthy period of time it can take for political parties to come to an agreement regarding the make-up of a new government. In the past, this has taken as long as nine months.

While Iraqis have come to expect these lengthy delays in the formation of a new government, they have also come to fear the violence that has often come with it

The political horse-trading is due not only to the plethora of parties who run, but also the confessional system that reserves the presidency for a Kurd, the prime ministry to a Shia Arab, and the role of parliamentary speaker to a Sunni Arab. The competing political parties begin to struggle, as they find they often do not agree on who should occupy these three key positions, let alone the cabinet offices.

While Iraqis have come to expect these lengthy delays in the formation of a new government, they have also come to fear the violence that has often come with it.

The New Arab's
Arabic-language service reported on Friday that the number of violent incidences had increased dramatically following the elections, with 15 terrorist attacks recorded in Anbar, Salahuddin, and Nineveh governorates over three days last week. These attacks are separate to the suicide bombing of a funeral just north of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, also last week.

While in each case, Islamic State group extremists were suspected of being behind the attacks, Iraqis also fear that the armed wings of various political factions might also start targeting each other to strengthen their negotiating position in the run-up to the formation of a new government.

At the height of the IS crisis in 2014, the post-election negotiations that brought incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to power led to a complete lapse in security in areas such as Hit and Baghdadi in Iraq's western Anbar governorate. IS militants used the chaos in Baghdad to round up men from Sunni Arab tribes opposed to them and slaughter them without any effective response from the central authorities.

Similarly, and following the 2010 elections, political violence between the parties led to the killing and wounding of some 500 Iraqis in less than a month of negotiations.

Abadi has already ordered the Iraqi security forces to be on alert for any acts of political violence, saying he would not allow the negotiating process to merge with acts of aggression in order to achieve political goals. He has also authorised troops to use deadly force in cases where political groups take up arms against one another.

Sadr open to all

Although violence appears set to continue in Iraq for the foreseeable future, the winners of the elections have already been busy trying to form the foundations of an effective governing coalition.

Iraq's incumbent Prime Minister Abadi and cleric-cum-kingmaker Muqtada al-Sadr met last Saturday and jointly pledged to form a "strong government, capable of providing to its citizens services, security and economic prosperity".

Electoral commission workers examine print-outs from electronic voting machines in Najaf [AFP]

Although Abadi's Victory Alliance was banking on the prime minister's success in recapturing Iraqi cities from IS extremists in the elections, a historically low turnout and voter anger at endemic corruption pushed his bloc into third place. Abadi's role as prime minister for a second term is therefore far from assured. However, Sadr could nominate Abadi for pragmatic reasons, as Abadi is liked by both Iran and the US, and he would also find himself indebted to Sadr.

However, Sadr is not only eyeing an alliance with Abadi, but also more controversial characters, including commanders in the Shia-dominated militant Popular Mobilisation Forces who ran as part of the Conquest Alliance, or Fatah in Arabic.

Sadr has made several big statements critical of Iran, painting himself as an Iraqi nationalist who opposes Iranian influence in Iraq. At one point, his supporters were heard chanting at a demonstration following his electoral victory, "Iran, out, out! Baghdad shall remain free!"

These anti-Iranian declarations did not prevent Sadr meeting with Hadi al-Amiri, leader both of the Fatah calition and of the notoriously pro-Iran Badr Organisation, on Sunday. Following the meeting, Sadr reiterated his desire to form an "inclusive" government and his office released a statement saying that the new government "must include the participation of all the winning blocs".

Sadr's comments regarding inclusivity and the necessity of bringing together all victorious blocs into one government has led to criticism that the Shia cleric is a pragmatic shapeshifter. While Sadr claims to be anti-Iran, his links with Tehran predate the US-led invasion, and allowed him to set up his powerful Mahdi Army militia and death squad.

The fact that Fatah under Amiri came second only to Sairoun in the polls appears to portend a power-sharing deal between Sadr and Amiri that will also include Abadi.

US calls on Iran to respect Iraqi sovereignty

With Iran having reportedly already sent its top regional commander, Major General Qassem Soleimani, to ensure a pro-Iran government is in place, Sadr's declarations appear to suggest that the status quo will be preserved in Iraq. However, the United States may have other ideas.

In his first major foreign policy speech since taking office, US Secretary of State and former spymaster Mike Pompeo threatened Iran unambiguously with the "strongest sanctions in history" if Tehran did not meet Washington's terms and halt its expansionist agenda in the Middle East.

Pompeo listed 12 demands with which Iran had to comply, or else risk "unprecedented financial pressure". Among those demands were for Iran to "respect the sovereignty of the Iraqi government and permit the disarming, demobilisation and reintegration of Shia militias".

Shia Islamist militants loyal to the regime are transported through Iraq to various battlegrounds in Syria in support of embattled President Bashar al-Assad

Pompeo's speech was one of the few times that the United States had officially articulated Iran's influence over Baghdad's decision-making with such clarity and at such a high level. With Washington gearing up to roll back Iranian influence across the region, the White House has at least paid lip service to paring back Tehran's power in Iraq; a worrying development for Iran.

Iran relies heavily on Iraq as the linchpin of its wider regional strategy. Shia Islamist militants loyal to the regime are transported through Iraq to various battlegrounds in Syria in support of embattled President Bashar al-Assad. These fighters not only pass through Iraq, but are often recruited from Iraq itself, with Iraqi Shia joining forces with Afghan, Pakistani and other militants working under the banner of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

Iraq also acted as an economic buffer for Iran during the sanctions period that predated the nuclear deal in 2015, which may explain why the US Treasury recently sanctioned an Iraqi bank for its connections to the Iranian regime. According to the Treasury, the bank was moving millions of dollars for the IRGC Qods Force, led by Qassem Soleimani, a US blacklisted terrorist organisation.

Perhaps also as a result of the pressure of its Arab and Israeli allies, the United States may now be willing to move more directly against Iran in critical strategic areas of influence such as Iraq. With Abadi and Sadr both having made trips to Saudi Arabia and the UAE to foster closer ties last year, the US may be content with seeing Iraq edge out of Iran's sphere of influence and be rehabilitated into the Arab fold.

However, it is highly unlikely that Tehran will simply sit back and allow this to happen without a fight. After all, Iran played an active role in arming and supporting the Shia militias who attacked US troops during the occupation of Iraq, and the Iranians already have the structures in place to resume such actions across the Middle East if they felt their influence was under threat.

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

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