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Iraq after the May 2018 Elections: Building Democracy or Becoming an Iranian Satellite?

Who will win the elections for Iraq’s Council of Deputies (national parliament) on May 12th? Will the current prime minister, Haydar al-Abadi, be returned to office for a full 4 year term or will he be defeated?  Who are his main competitors?  Why is this election so important for the future of building a democratic Iraqi nation-state?

The recent defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and neighboring Syria represents an important step forward.  Among Iraqis, especially in Arab areas of the country, it has created a sense of positive momentum of which Prime Minister Hayder al-Abadi has been the beneficiary. The Iraqi Army’s professionalism and non-sectarian behavior during the campaign against the Dacish, especially that shown by its US trained Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS), earned the respect of many Sunni Arabs and has worked to tamp down sectarian feeling nationally.

Prime Minister Hayder al-Abadi

At the same time, Prime Minister al-Abadi weathered a difficult period this past fall after the ill-fated September 25rd KRG referendum which asked Iraq’s Kurds whether they wanted to leave Iraq and form an independent nation-state.  The referendum, the product of political maneuvering by ex-KRG president, Masoud Barzani, passed by a large margin (although many Kurds chose not to vote) and seemed to pose a major threat to Iraq’s unity.

However, fissures between the two main  Kurdish political parties, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), allowed Federal Government forces to reoccupy territories seized by the KRG’s Pesh Merga forces after they were abandoned by the national army in 2014, following the Dacish seizure of Mosul and other areas of northern Iraq.

Former KGR president, Masoud Bazani

The loss of these areas, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, deprived the KRG of 30% of its oil revenues. While precipitating a major crisis with the KRG, Abadi’s popularity also benefited from the return of territories which Arab Iraqis felt had been unlawfully seized by the Pesh Merga in 2014.  Abadi came to be seen as a strong leader who prevented the dissolution of Iraq.

Still, the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs), or al-Hashad al-Shacbi, formed after the Iraqi Army collapsed in Mosul and the north in June 2014, also benefited from the defeat of the Dacish. Not only did the 40 odd militias celebrate their victories over terrorist forces, but the 3 most powerful strengthened their ties to Iran.  In effect, the Badr Organization, led by Hadi al-Amiri, a highly popular and known among some Shica as “shaykh al-mujahidin,” the Kata’ib Hizballah (Hizballah Brigades), led by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, and the League of the Righteous People, led by Qa’is al-Khazzali, have become military and political arms of the Iranian regime in Iraq.

Equally important is the extensive political organization which the PMUs have created, especially in the southern Shica majority provinces of Iraq. Having been able to offer poor youth employment, the PMUs are revered not only for their military prowess (which is not always deserved), but for the economic resources which they have delivered to marginalized Shica communities.  This dual reputation will serve the many PMU candidates well who will run for parliamentary office.


The PMUs have benefited from funds obtained from Prime Minister al-Abadi’s office. Because these funds were distributed to Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, Deputy Head of the PMU coalition, he has been able to build an extensive patronage network. These public monies have reduced the pressure on Iran to fund those militias which support its policies in Iraq. Thus there will be strong pressure during the election campaign, which is now in full swing, to maintain Federal Government funding of the PMUs, thereby attracting votes for PMU candidates from the unemployed and underemployed who rely on PMU largesse.

How does Hayder al-Abadi fare in this political equation?  How can he strengthen his position in the forthcoming national elections?  His best move is to focus on winning the election not only by emphasizing democracy in the abstract, namely individual freedoms, fair elections, and transparent and accountable governance, but by stressing job creation and the rebuilding of Iraqi towns and villages destroyed in the war against the Dacish. In other words, he must emphasize socialdemocracy, which will provide jobs, such as construction work, for large numbers of currently unemployed Shica youth, the main constituency of the PMUs.

What type of a coalition can Abadi build in confronting the PMUs?  He must mobilize four different constituencies to have any hope of winning a full term as Iraqi prime minister.  First, he needs to develop solid support among the secular middle classes, Shica Sunni and Kurd.  He can accomplish this end through promising to fight corruption and nepotism, and offer transparent and accountable governance.  Personal freedoms must also be part of his message.  Above all, he needs to emphasize that he will combat sectarianism in favor of an Iraqi nationalism which is tolerant and inclusive of all Iraq’s diverse religious and ethnic communities.

Rebuilding the city of Mosul

Second, he must reach out to the poor and unemployed. Here success at the February 12-14 Kuwait International Conference of Iraq Reconstruction and Development, which seeks to raise $100 billion in international funds for rebuilding regions destroyed in the war against the Dacish, will be critical to this effort.  If Abadi can mobilize resources to rebuild the damaged and destroyed towns and cities, formerly under control of the Dacish, then myriad construction jobs will become available.

Here the United States can play an important role in encouraging Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states to open their pocketbooks and contribute handsomely to Iraq.  These US allies should also be encouraged to invest in Iraq, thereby earning profits and not just distributing financial largesse.  Saudi Arabia has already reopened its border with Iraq and committed large amounts of funds which it will invest in the Iraqi economy.

The message here to Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf: a prosperous Iraq will be a bulwark against the rise of new terrorist organizations and Iranian interference in Iraq’s internal affairs. A prosperous Iraq, whose government is cross-ethnic and cross-sect will prevent the rise of Shica sectarianism which Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states see as a threat to their internal security, given the largepopulations of Shica in the Saudi kingdom and the Arab Gulf states.

In the rebuilding process, Abadi could draw upon the United States’ experience during the Great Depression when the Roosevelt administration’s Neal Deal developed the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) which put millions of Americans to work developing the national infrastructure, constructing buildings, engaging in reforestation and expanding national parks and contributing to many other areas of the US economy.

Iraqi soldiers repairing Christian monastery in Mosul desecrated by IS

In Iraq, unemployed Shica could work in the north with Sunnis to rebuild communities, schools, hospitals, roads and municipal water and sewer systems.  This idea of Shica and Sunnis working side by side is not a new idea because Iraqi unions during the 1930s through the early 1960s – before they were suppressed by the first Bacth Party regime which came to power in 1963 – were characterized by their multi-ethnic and multi-religious membership.  Indeed, university students from many parts of Iraq have already traveled to Mosul to help the citizens of the city rebuild their famous university, city schools and other municipal institutions.

Lt. General cAbd al-Wahhab al-Sacdi, CTS commander

A third constituency Abadi needs to attract is the security forces.  The CTS, and Federal Police, which fought the Dacish so effectively, are highly professional, having received excellent training from the US army.  As one of the top commanders of the CTS, Lt. General cAbd al-Wahhab al-Sacdi stated, there is “zero tolerance” for sectarianism in his units. The loyalty of this segment of Iraqi society will be critical to Abadi’s efforts, if reelected, to further professionalizing the Federal Iraqi Army.

The United States military, which played a central role in retraining the Iraqi Army after its rout by the Dacish in 2014, thereby enabling it to defeat the terrorists, needs to remain engaged in  further training and professionalization of the Iraqi armed forces.  An important dimension of this training, which is often overlooked, is that professionalism is indirectly correlated with sectarianism.  A non-sectarian Iraqi Army is key to circumscribing the political and military influence of PMU sectarianism.

Muqtada al-Sadr and Prime Minister Hayder al-Abadi

There are two cleavages in Iraqi politics from which the prime minister can benefit.  First, the popular cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, is vociferously anti-Tehran and pro-Arab.  While his Saraya al-Salam brigades haven’t gained as much legitimacy from fighting the Dacish, his long term commitment to Iraq’s poor and the social services his organization has provided to the residents of Sadr City (formerly Revolution City) – the most densely populated quarter of Baghdad – has earned him enormous legitimacy among the Shica poor.

Sadr was angered by Abadi’s efforts to form a coalition with the PMUs earlier this month in an effort to demonstrate that the prime minister does not oppose them and seeks to rule through a broad political coalition.  The outcry among Abadi’s supporters was such that the still born political alliance crumbled in a day as the 3 dominant militias withdrew from Abadi’s al-Nasr (Victory) coalition.

Finally, Abadi must convince the Kurds that they are truly equal citizens in a federated Iraqi nation-state.  The Kurds need to see a sincere effort on Abadi’s part to offer them a role in Iraq which will offset the desire to form an independent nation-state of their own, one which most Kurds now agree isn’t economically viable.  The Kurds fear Iran and their local agents in Iraq especially the “Big 3” PMUs – the Badr Organization, the League of the Righteous People and the Kata’ib Hizballah. In this sense, the Kurds’ “natural political home” is in an Abadi government, especially if he appoints Kurds to a number of important ministries and military positions.

Another cleavage from which Abadi benefits is the hostility large numbers of Iraqi Shica feel towards former prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, whose ultrta-sectyarian policies enabled the Dacish to seize  Mosul and large portions of north central Iraq and to carry out the horrors of the Camp Speicher massacre where 1500 Shica troops were summarily executed by the terrorist organization.  When Maliki has tried to deliver speeches in cities in the south – such as Karbala’ and Basra – he has literally been forced to leave the podium given the anger of the crowd.

Nevertheless, Maliki seeks a comeback.  His strategy is to try and ride the wave of the PMUs should they receive a large number of votes and hence seats in the new Council of Deputies.  This prospect represents a long shot, but Maliki could potentially become the PMU candidate for prime minister in light of the common bond the 3 main PMUs and he share through their ties to and financial support from Tehran.

Not only is Abadi popular for defeating the Dacish and liberating Iraqi territory, but he possesses a quality which almost no Iraqi leaders before him have enjoyed, namely trust.  Aside from cAbd al-Karim Qasim, who ruled from 1958-1963, and, to a lesser extent, King Faysal I, who ruled from independence in 1921-1933, Iraq has never had a political leader who the populace feels is working on their behalf.  (Among Iraq’s Kurds, Mulla Mustapha Barzani certainly enjoyed that status).

In light of the track record of failed Iraqi political leaders since independence in 1921, the election of Haydar al-Abadi as prime minister next May is vital for Iraq and the surrounding region. Unlike Faysal I or Qasim, Abadi’s authority did not originate as a result of colonial control of Iraq or a military coup d’état.  To have a democratically elected, highly educated, non-sectarian and civically minded leader of Iraq is essential if the country is to transcend the trauma brought on by scars the Dacish left on large segments of the country’s population.

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