Iraq's ethnic, religious groups fragmented as elections loom
Divisions in Iraq are growing ahead of national elections scheduled for May, with Iranian influence set to grow as Sunnis fend for themselves in areas devastated by the three-year war against the Islamic State.
Iraq's cabinet has proposed elections for 12 May, a date that awaits final parliamentary approval.
Nearly 7,000 candidates will vie for 329 seats in parliament the May elections, the fourth since the 2003 US-led invasion that removed Saddam Hussein from power, according to the Independent High Electoral Commission.
Candidates have formed 27 political coalitions and last month, the electoral commission extended the deadline for registering the alliances as political parties worked to negotiate deals, but failed.
Sunni candidates are divided among three big alliances and up to seven small ones. Leaders had demanded a delay in elections for up to six months arguing that many of their voters are in areas that suffered some of the worst destruction in the war.
Constituents would not have enough time to gather paperwork and update their personal information in time to cast their ballots, they argued. Haider al-Abadi's government has insisted the elections be held on time.
|After the ouster of Saddam Hussein, many Sunnis felt marginalised as parties led by Shias were able to win elections by sheer numbers.
If Sunni communities feel that the vote is not fair it could undermine the international community's goal of bringing about a more inclusive government to maintain a unified state.
Iranian-backed Shia militias allied with the Baghdad government also appear set to gain influence, with Sunnis worried about waning influence.
After the ouster of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, many Sunnis felt marginalised as parties led by Shias were able to win elections by sheer numbers.
Politicians appear to be trying to distance themselves from sectarian rhetoric in the run-up to the vote, saying they will form diverse, cross-sectarian coalitions.
Many expect the post-election creation of a parliament majority to be sectarian nonetheless.
"Differences now are deeper than before in that everyone is seeking influence in the next government," said Ali al-Adeeb, a leading Shia politician. "Thus, the process of forming the new government will be complicated and any further delay will further complicate the political and security scene."
Sunni lawmaker Mohammed al-Karboli said Sunni candidates will have a difficult time facing more dominant Shia political groups who have far more resources. "The Sunnis will have a weak presence in the next parliament. We are not optimistic about the coming elections," he said.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced he is seeking re-election with his recently formed Victory Alliance, running separately from rival Nouri al-Maliki's State of Law coalition. Al-Maliki is currently vice president, he was prime minister from 2006 to 2014.
Both men are members of the Shia Islamist Dawa party, which has said its supporters can vote for either candidate.
|The Sunnis will have a weak presence in the next parliament. We are not optimistic about the coming elections
-Lawmaker Mohammed al-Karboli
Primed to play a major role in the election is the Conquest Alliance, a coalition of popular Iran-backed militias led by Hadi al-Amiri, leader of the Badr Brigade, one of the country’s most prominent Shiite militia groups.
Lawmaker Ahmed al-Asadi said the Conquest Alliance has its eye on the position of prime minister.
A deal had been announced between al-Abadi's party and the Alliance but it lasted only two days. The breakup came at the behest of Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran's elite Quds Force and a key adviser to the Shia militias, two senior Shiite politicians said.
Soleimani's involvement suggests Iran is endeavouring to install its militia allies into power for its own political purposes.
A source who also asked to go unnamed said neither al-Abadi nor the Conquest Alliance could agree on what percentage of representation the Alliance would have inside al-Abadi's coalition.
Another source close to al-Abadi said it was Iran who first asked the Conquest Alliance to join al-Abadi and then withdrew in order to embarrass the prime minister in front of the West.
Lawmaker Mohammed Mahdi al-Bayati said he believes the militias, who were instrumental in defeating IS, will do well because of their popularity in both Shia and Sunni areas. If they do well enough, they plan to propose al-Amri, the Badr Brigade leader, for prime minister, he said.
"Iran stands with us in the fight, so it will be happy if we win in the elections," al-Bayati said.
The prime minister position is reserved for Shia Muslims under an unofficial agreement dating back to 2003. The same agreement stipulates that the widely ceremonial president post be held by a Kurd, while the parliament speaker is Sunni.
Meanwhile, the followers of Iraq's firebrand Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr will also field candidates in their Marchers Alliance, while Shia cleric Ammar al-Hakim, who previously split from the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, will lead his National Wisdom Movement.
In the country's north, ethnic Kurds who used to run on two or three lists inside and outside their self-ruled region are broken into at least six lists as differences have been exacerbated after the September referendum on independence resulted in harsh measures from Baghdad.
Some prominent Kurdish politicians have joined Arab-led lists.
In his briefing to the United Nation Security Council on 20 February, special envoy to Iraq Jan Kubis said cross-sectarian and cross-ethnic coalitions across the political spectrum are essential.