Iraq is witnessing a brazen coup d’etat. Nine months ago, the Iran-backed Fatah paramilitary coalition suffered a devastating electoral defeat, plunging to just 17 out of 329 seats. That should have meant political extinction.
Yet, after months of cynical obstruction tactics, it has forced a situation in which — flying in the face of every constitutional principle — it has been gifted sufficient parliamentary seats to become the largest party in parliament, able to install a prime minister of its choosing.
How is such an antidemocratic outcome possible?
Despite having had the largest party in parliament following the October elections, cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr found his efforts continually thwarted when taking even elementary steps toward forming a Cabinet.
Eventually, Al-Sadr had the mother of all tantrums in early June and compelled all his 73 MPs to resign, partly due to successful Iranian efforts to shatter the fragile alliance between Al-Sadr and the Kurdistan Democratic Party.
In consequence, throughout Shiite-majority constituencies, pro-Iran candidates who were humiliatingly defeated by the Sadrists have suddenly found themselves the default occupants of many of these empty seats — scarcely believing their luck. Last week, they were formally sworn into parliament, leaving the Iran-aligned Coordination Framework —composed of elements that were definitively rejected by the electorate — with a dominant bloc of about 130 MPs.
A Hashd-dominated government consolidates Iraq’s position as an Iranian satellite state. American forces and Western assets would be compelled to depart, with dangerous consequences for the ongoing battle against Daesh. Iraq is set to wholly become a frontline state in Tehran’s war against the world, bristling with missiles and paramilitary armies. Missile strikes in recent days against an Iraq-based UAE oil company are a first taste of the enmity to come.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi’s efforts to enforce the rule of law and cultivate relations with Arab states will be left in tatters. Al-Kadhimi’s current round of visits to Tehran and Riyadh likely reflect his trepidation at how the situation is unraveling.
Did Iran pressure Al-Sadr into taking such a calamitous decision? Observers are skeptical of Al-Sadr’s denials. Inadvertently or deliberately, Al-Sadr has previously acted as the plaything of Tehran.
Iraq is set to wholly become a frontline state in Tehran’s war against the world, bristling with missiles and paramilitary armies
As son of the monumental cleric Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq Al-Sadr, Muqtada was bequeathed the position of one of Iraq’s principal powerbrokers. Prone to extreme mood swings, Al-Sadr has a track record of petulantly abandoning politics when matters do not swing his way. He was crucially silent over the 2006-07 period, when his Mahdi Army and pro-Iran death squads murdered tens of thousands of citizens in bloody sectarian purges.
In 2019, Al-Sadr was a leading figure in the protest movement. Then, overnight, he suddenly sided with Tehran-backed paramilitaries and his foot soldiers collaborated in bloodily crushing and undermining the protests. About 600 protesters were murdered by militia thugs, accompanied by a surge in assassinations of journalists and activists. If Al-Sadr’s resignation is about a return to street activism, he will struggle to rebuild credibility with mainstream activists after his past betrayals.
Who will be the next prime minister? The abhorrent Nouri Al-Maliki is a likely candidate. As prime minister between 2006 and 2014, Al-Maliki cultivated the poisonous sectarian climate that bequeathed Daesh and the plethora of paramilitary forces that today dominate Iraq. Or the Hashd may nominate one of its own; perhaps Hadi Al-Amiri or another marginally less notorious figure who would be less likely to be vetoed by Kurdish and Sunni factions.
The biggest loser is Iraq’s democracy, national identity and sovereignty. Iraqis are discovering that it does not matter who they vote for; powerful vested interests have bountiful methods for clinging onto power and advancing their corrupt and violent agendas.
This outcome sends a dangerous message to Lebanon, where Hezbollah and its allies were narrowly defeated in recent elections. Hassan Nasrallah is a more sophisticated operator than Iraq’s Hashd mafiosos and he is arguably in a stronger position. Hence, Nasrallah simply needs to tenaciously block any formula that does not grant him and his allies the keys to the Cabinet and the presidential palace, in the expectation that he and his Iranian backers will ultimately prevail.
Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen are mere playing cards in the ayatollahs’ regional brinkmanship; although Iraq — due to its size and proximity — is Iran’s ace in the pack. Following the EU’s Josep Borrell’s weekend visit to Tehran, another desultory round of indirect nuclear talks is due, with scant optimism that the critical issues will be addressed.
Iran now reportedly possesses sufficient nuclear materials for a bomb, while passively being allowed to dominate the regional neighborhood. Has the diplomatic community yet grasped the catastrophic consequences of developments in Baghdad?
The ayatollahs believe they are on the brink of achieving all their demonic ambitions. The achievement of such objectives would render inevitable an apocalyptic confrontation with Israel that would suck in the regional and Western powers.
Moves toward regional alignment could also act as a definitive check on Iranian expansionism, with King Abdullah II of Jordan last week speculating about the potential for a Middle Eastern equivalent of NATO.
The Iraqi 2021 elections offered modest hope that the vicious clutches of these militias upon the Iraqi state could be loosened. I was told at the time that I was being unnecessarily pessimistic when I warned that Iran and the Hashd would use every trick in the book to prevent this outcome. Yet, even in my worst nightmares, I had not envisioned a scenario as dire as the current one, where the Hashd has rebounded from near-political extinction to become the dominant governing power.
In the coming weeks, we will see punishing battles as Hashd mafiosos seek to dominate the upper levels of all key government ministries, while also consolidating their preeminence at the provincial level. The Hashd’s economic corruption, extortion, involvement in organized crime, narcotics and arms proliferation, and pillaging of Iraq’s state budget have been massive and blatant — but expect this criminality to become even more brazen.
Iraq is now truly a militia state. Al-Sadr’s cowardly and deranged retreat from parliament potentially represents a fatal stab in the back for Iraqi democracy.
Like Saddam Hussein before them, if Iran’s paramilitary puppets are allowed to get away with such a flagrant power grab, it would not be unreasonable to expect that the only scenario by which they can subsequently be compelled to relinquish power is ultimately through military force.
- Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News’ point of view