Ramon Blecua, a Spanish diplomat, a former European Union Ambassador to Iraq and currently Ambassador-at-large for Mediation and Intercultural Dialogue. The opinions reflected in this paper are his own and do not represent the official position of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Spain.
Iraq is heading to the early elections in October, promised by Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi in response to the demand of the protestors, in the most uncertain situation of recent years. Moqtada al-Sadr, leader of the largest parliamentary bloc, has announced his decision to withdraw from the elections and has forbidden his followers to endorse or support any candidate. He has effectively taken the leadership of the boycott movement, co-opting it in a similar way as he tried to do during the protests of the so called Tishreen Uprising. As on that occasion, he may change course and try to cash in his political acrobatics, but his decision could deepen the unprecedented legitimacy crisis that the whole Iraqi political system is facing, between the increasingly irreconcilable positions of the protestors and the political establishment concerning the survival of the “muhasasa ta’ifia” (sectarian quota) system. These upcoming elections will have a deep impact, not only in the political situation in Iraq, but also in the regional political dynamics. International players are already circling Iraq, placing their bets in the race. Iraq’s Prime Minister has tried, in an act of pollical jujitsu, to turn this regional meddling to his advantage by harnessing his place at the center of a web of intrigue to showcase Iraq as a regional bridge builder, and to play off these various contenders against each other to maintain Iraq’s precarious internal balance.
What makes this election different is that the challenge to the system is not coming from disenfranchised Sunnis nor from Kurdish separatists; it is from the Shia House itself. Even if the Tishreen Movement has not been able to create political platforms and refuses to endorse traditional parties in the elections, the signs are there for all to see concerning the dissatisfaction of the (mainly Shia) public opinion. For instance, within the Hashd al-Sha’bi, the militia conglomerate that has official status, there are signs of internal strife, with the rivalries even within the dominant Fatah coalition, where Kataib Hezbollah, one of Iran’s most powerful proxies, has launched a new movement: Harakat Hoquq.
The jockeying is understandable: the result of these elections will decide the fate of the Iraqi state for years for years to come. The possibility of a postponement of the elections, hinted by the Prime Minister at an earlier stage, seems to have been set aside after a recent meeting that included representatives of all political blocs, the United Nations, the Chief Justice, and the Speaker of Parliament.
Whatever the results, these elections will demonstrate that Iraq is the most dynamic political laboratory of the Middle East. The international community is also deeply invested in the elections, with the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) having a key role in the supervision of the process and the European Union (EU) announcing it will send an electoral observation mission at the request of Baghdad.
In my thirty years of experience in the Middle East, I have had many opportunities to hone my analytical skills in the complexities of a region, where overlapping historical layers of cultural and ethnic diversity frequently defy the understanding of political experts. Iraq is probably the country that has intrigued me most and that I have found most frequently misrepresented or misunderstood. The proud resistance of Iraqis to foreign occupation or Western intellectual categorization is only comparable to their passion for multiple loyalties and playing simultaneously all regional and international patrons in their endless political intrigues. The reluctance of most international pundits to accept that, of the multiple explanations to Iraqi events, several of them could be true, contributes to the frequent misunderstanding of Iraqi political dynamics. While agreeing that Iraq remains the key to regional security and stability, I find it surprising that the debate in Washington is still focused on the U.S.-Iranian shadow boxing in Mesopotamia and the Americans’ search for reliable allies to push back Iranian influence in Iraq, as the recent visit of Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi has clearly underlined.
I owe a tribute to the wisdom of the many Iraqis that have enlightened me during my exciting posting in Baghdad, and among them I would like to begin with Hisham al-Hashemi. Not because of his recent call to fame as a martyr of the protest movement and a victim of the revenge of some of the pro-Iranian factions of the Hashd, but precisely because of his very complex personality and multiple political loyalties. A gentle and kind person loved by his many friends, among which I count myself, Hisham had a dark past as a key enabler of the rise of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia (AQM), the predecessor of the Islamic State (ISIS), the most brutal terrorist organization in the region. Since those years of blood and fury, he had become a reference for the understanding of ISIS and other radical jihadi groups, from whom all of us learnt enormously. The arrest of one of his assassins, Ahmed al-Kinani, confirmed the suspicions that Kataib Hezbollah was behind the killing but opened another series of riddles related to why they killed someone that was close to the late leader of the Hashd. As Nibras Kazimi, in his recent piece, tries to untie the knots of Hisham’s multiple patrons and conflicting loyalties, a whole symphony of political intrigues in Iraq’s recent history comes to light. According to Nibras’ research, Hisham worked—sometimes simultaneously—for the CIA, Saudi intelligence, the Turkish government, and the Iranian Ettelaat (Ministry of Intelligence, formerly VEVAK), while at various times working for Iraqi intelligence, or factions therein, and being patronized by several competing Iraqi political leaders. Like the Murder in the Orient Express, one is left with the sense it could be all of them with motive to kill. But in this case, it appears that he was suspected of complicity in the killing of the Iranian general Qassem Suleimani, and the deputy of the Hashd, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandes. That this is almost certainly untrue did not matter; his fate was sealed by their belief.
I consider Hisham al-Hashemi an example, certainly not a unique one, of the many paradoxes that make up the mysterious threads needed to navigate the labyrinth of Iraqi politics. The fact that an Iranian cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, is the ultimate reference for political disputes in Iraq and the inspiration of many of those who struggle to reform the political system is another case in point. His undisputed religious authority and considerable political influence has always been considered a bulwark against the pervasive Iranian influence in the country. At the same time, many Americans that complain bitterly about the corruption and lack of authority of the Iraqi government, fail to recognize that they created the fragmented state governance system, based on the ethno-sectarian distribution of power, after their military intervention in 2003. Not to leave the elephant in the room, Iranian influence is as often played out through the Kurdish and Sunni political leaders, as it is through the Shia parties. Moqtada al-Sadr, with his aggressive political campaign against the Iranian interference in Iraq, is a good example of how contradictory the Iraqi political narrative can be. The fact that the rise of Iranian influence in Iraq owes a lot to regional countries’ support for the different Sunni insurgencies since 2003 is also a good example of the paradoxical nature of Iraqi politics, where actions generally have the opposite reaction to that intended.
The many contradictions that shape Iraqi politics become evident in the sectarian narrative, which has become the dominant explanation for the post-2003 conflicts. While an undeniable reality in the Iraqi political system, it is much more debatable in Iraqi society, where 38% of marriages are mixed, according to available statistics. The political discourse has changed significantly in the last two elections, with messages emphasizing cross-sectarian alliances and inclusive cultural content. ISIS has been a dramatic cathartic experience, not properly analyzed, in my opinion, because the collapse of support in the Sunni community for such a political project is very revealing of Iraqi culture. The fact that some of the Sunni brigades in the Hashd, originating from Salahuddin, took a leading role in the liberation of that province is very significant, as my friend Yazen al-Jubouri explained to me. The real defeat of ISIS is not the result of the military campaign led by the U.S. with the support of a fifty-country coalition, but the lack of support within the Sunni community in Iraq. Little attention has been paid to the fact that over five million of the six-and-a-half million displaced people during the military campaign had been reintegrated in their homes within months of the end of the military operations, with very little violence. One of the most successful operations in post-conflict stabilization, led by the U.N., has passed nearly unnoticed. But there is more work to do. The lack of attention for the fate of Mosul and the need to rebuild the social fabric of the communities that lived under ISIS’s so-called Caliphate, needs extra attention. One of the few efforts to bring it into view is the “Reviving the spirit of Mosul”. This neglect may haunt us in years to come, because the main antidote against radicalism and extremism is in the rich cultural heritage of Iraq.
While it is rather fashionable to talk about the failure of the Iraqi state as a result of the influence of the militias over the political system, and some experts consider that making them disappear would solve Iraq’s political problems, it seems that they are mistaking the symptom for the cause of the disease. The Hashd are neither the cause of Iraq’s problems nor the reason for Iran’s influence over the state institutions, but the result of a dysfunctional system that in order to survive had to create parallel structures to provide security and other services to a large section of disenfranchised Iraqis. The Hashd are also not the only actor undermining state authority in Iraq, nor are they the only armed groups that are linked to political parties. The current struggle within the Shia blocs for political power is delivering some unexpected surprises that challenge the established theories and prove that Iraq is probably the country in the region, with the obvious exception of Israel, where political experimentation is being pushed the farthest. The dynamic of alliances across ethno-sectarian boundaries is very clear, with Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish parties taking positions in opposing camps. The launching of the Aqd al-Watani coalition, led by Falah Fayad and integrated by different Shia and Sunni groups, is an example of the completion for a large political majority, a tendency that began during the last elections.
With this context in mind, Moqtada al-Sadr’s decision to boycott the election and dismantle the Sadrist Political Commission, effectively leaving the largest Parliamentary bloc without direction, can be seen more in its proper proportions. It is the kind of political drama one would expect in a system where the personality of the charismatic leaders looms large, and incidentally reiterates a point above, since Sadr is among those leaders who has a powerful armed group at his disposal. The rest of the political parties have decided to call his bluff and go ahead with the election anyway. Interestingly, Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission Iraq (IHEC) has made a public statement clarifying that no candidate had officially requested the withdrawal of their candidates. In a similar vein, the shadow of Nouri al-Maliki may become an important feature of this next election, especially if the Sadrists do withdraw and clear space for him. This dynamic is redoubled by the fragmentation of the Hashd/Fatah bloc, as mentioned in the case of Harakat Hoquq above, led by a senior Kataib Hezbollah leader, Hussein Mowanes, but all of the Hashd groups—Iraqi Hezbollah, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Badr—are sniping at each other, accusing each other of betraying the ideals that Abu Mahdi al-Muhandes represented. And on top of that the Shia rivalries have redrawn the lines in the Sunni camp, pushing Mohamed al-Halbusi and Khamis al-Khanjar into a pitted battle for power and influence that has some geopolitical regional overtones.
The paradox of Iraqi politics is more visible than ever as we approach election day on 10 October, a fateful test not just for the current government or the political establishment but for Iraqi society as a whole. The government is being asked to deliver fair elections and the international community will supervise them, while many who have been protesting for a new government are now boycotting the process by which they might get one. The U.N. Security Council resolution that supports an extensive international observation mandate, and the EU’s declared readiness to oversee the vote and support the National Dialogue within Iraqi civil society, offers the government a unique opportunity to deliver on some of its promises of change. It is true that in the past two years, the levels of political violence have increased, with over-600 dead protestors killed by security forces. Nevertheless, Iraq can still avoid entering another cycle of violence and conflict, and regional and international powers have an interest in helping prevent it.
In a regional context, Iraq’s openness and track record of peaceful transfers of power remains impressive, albeit much needs to be done to improve. The current circumstances might not offer much hope of delivering a clear, credible mandate, but everything possible must be done to work towards this goal. Much is at stake, not just for the future of the majority of Iraqis who are under-25, but for the stability of the whole region.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.