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Surprising Election Results and Assassination Attempt: What’s Next for Iraq?

Nearly one month after the fifth parliamentary elections in Iraq, Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi faced a failed assassination attempt through drones. Three weeks before the attack, the country was facing increased escalation by militias because of the election in which they lost most of their seats at the parliament. On October 10, Iraqis headed to the polls to vote in the fifth parliamentary elections since the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. These elections represent a break from the previous four in at least two ways. First, the past four elections were held at their scheduled times, while this election was held early. Early elections were a priority for Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi when he assumed office in May 2020. The snap election was in part intended to meet one of the Iraqi public’s demands following protests that led to the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi in 2019. Secondly, the latest elections were held under a new electoral law that the Iraqi Parliament ratified in November 2020. The new law expands each office’s constituency and encourages voters to support individual candidates, rather than political parties. Relatively few Iraqis turned out for the October elections compared to previous votes, but the results still surprised international observers.

Following the assassination attempt with an explosive laden drone against Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, a top Iranian general and leader of the Quds Force, Esmail Qaani, visited Baghdad on November 8th. Two Iraqi politicians said that Qaani stated, “Iran has nothing to do with this attack”, although it is thought that Iranian-backed militias played a role in the attack. Lebanon’s Al-Manar TV, which the Iran-backed Hezbollah group runs, said Ghaani also met with Iraqi President Barham Salih and other political figures in the country.

Depressed Turnout

The recent election featured a record-low turnout of 41% of registered voters. Various factors contributed to this figure; most notably, many Iraqis have little trust in the political establishment. The voting public may have concluded that the elections were unlikely to change anything of immediate importance to them, and that little separated the candidates. Like many in the region, Iraqis have little appetite for platitudes. Instead, the Iraqi electorate is increasingly vocal about wanting real change that improves the country’s security and economic situation. They perceive governmental corruption and mismanagement as primary reasons for the suffering they continue to endure. If the political elites were determined to address corruption, more would certainly have been done to curb it. But because its spread is “politically-sanctioned” in Iraq, not much hope exists for meaningful reform.

Indeed, many candidates during the campaign gave the impression that the plight of average citizens is not their top priority. This perception may well have dissuaded many Iraqis from heading to the polling stations. More broadly, Iraq still suffers from an identity crisis, which could have fed a low turnout. Deep divisions exist not only among the political parties, but within Iraqi society writ large. For various reasons, there exist tiers in the social fabric. Although the military defeat of ISIS in 2017 has encouraged the development of a better-defined national identity, such a process is challenging and takes time to implement. While Iraqi youth are clearly discontented with the political establishment, previous generations embraced their national identity differently. In the early 1980s, for instance, the Ba’thist ruling party, which adopted a pan-Arab nationalist approach, had around 1.25 million members. Today’s Iraqi youth are less trusting of such ideologies. Since the elections will certainly bring one of the established parties to power, young voters may see boycotting the elections as one way of expressing their frustration with the entire political establishment.

Electoral Surprises Upset Militias

The Fatah bloc, comprising the main pro-Iran components of the Popular Mobilization Forces, suffered an enormous and unforeseen loss, dropping from 48 seats to just 17. The bloc—led by Hadi al-Ameri—predictably disputed the election’s results. Nevertheless, Fatah’s defeat suggests the voters’ willingness to reduce Tehran’s influence in the country.

The election’s results provided a host of other surprises. Among the Shi’ite parties, Muqtada Al-Sadr-backed Sairoon coalition emerged as the clear winner, gaining 73 seats. While his bloc won the 2018 elections as well, Sadr’s margin increased by 17 seats in 2021. Sadr had announced a boycott of the elections in mid-July, but later reversed his stance. His boycott announcement was widely seen as a political move. Through his recent victory, Sadr has indeed increased his influence in Parliament, which frightens the militias because of his calls to restrict weapons in the hands of the government.

Former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a close ally to the militias and to Iran, made an unexpected return. His coalition, State of Law, gained 37 seats, a net gain of nine seats, making it the second-largest bloc in Parliament after Sadr’s coalition. In 2014, the Iraqi government’s failure to curb the Islamic State contributed to Maliki’s political downfall. Today, however, he seems to have seen the divisions among the Shiite blocs as an opportunity for a comeback. Meanwhile, the National State Forces Alliance, led by former Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi and Hikma Movement leader Ammar al-Hakim, failed to gain more than a handful of seats.

Within the Sunni-led bloc, the rivalry continued between the Taqadum Party, led by former Speaker of Parliament Mohammed al-Halbousi, and the Azm Alliance, led by businessman Khamis al-Khanjar. The former won out, adding 32 seats to the six it earned in 2018. The Azm Alliance received 14 seats, as it did in 2018. Various factors contributed to Taqadum’s victory, including Halbousi’s pragmatic stance on internal affairs, which presented him as an open-minded realist. Among Kurdish voters, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) grew its presence from 25 seats to 32, while the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) won 16 seats, down from 18 three years ago.

Aside from these traditional blocs, the performance of the Protest Movement, which received nine seats, was notable. The Protest Movement candidates emerged from lack of public trust in the Iraqi political establishment, and it is likely that a higher turnout would have meant more seats for the Protest Movement-backed candidates, given the citizens’ lack of trust in the establishment. The new parliament will likely add pressure on the PMF-backed parties since many of the largest blocs ran on the promise to work to curtail the power of the militias and end their violations and impunity.

Regional Reaction

Most of Iraq’s neighbors and other countries in the region condemned the attack on the Prime Minister. Since he came to power over a year ago, the PM created stronger ties for Iraq with different regional powers like the UAE, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. Therefore, the elections have important implications for the surrounding region, which suggests that many states in the region would have followed the elections closely. Some Arabs expect hurdles in working with Sadr, though they are likely to be delighted by the PMF-backed bloc defeat.

In June, the leaders of Jordan, Egypt, and Iraq met in Baghdad, marking the fourth summit of its kind. In an implicit reference to Iran, Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said after the summit, “Iraq must be isolated from regional interventions.” Some regional states, such as the members of the emerging Jordan-Iraq-Egypt alliance, may well wish to see a reduced Iranian influence in Iraq and the region at large. In July, King Abdullah II visited the U.S., becoming the first Arab leader to meet with President Joseph Biden. The Jordanian monarch is said to have urged Biden to back Kadhimi with an eye toward distancing Iraq from Iran. Abdullah has reportedly said the Iraqi prime minister is ideally positioned to help control militias aligned with Iran in the country.

Thus, it would be unsurprising if Jordan, Egypt, and Gulf Arab states prefer Kadhimi as prime minister. In April, Saudi-Iranian talks began in Baghdad. The negotiations mark an achievement for Kadhimi’s government, which tried to remain neutral amid the increased regional turmoil of the past few years. Indeed, any promotion of de-escalatory measures would benefit the region.

Washington’s Perspective

The U.S. support for Al-Kadhimi was clear in the White House and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s statements. The U.S. was keen not to appear involved in the elections process or perceived as influencing the vote in any way. Middle East expert and former State Department analyst Gregory Aftandilian said in an email interview, “Generally, the U.S. sees the Iraqi elections as a positive development because they were held in a relatively free and fair way and the parties connected to the pro-Iran militias lost some seats.”

Indeed, Washington would want to reduce Iran’s influence in the region, including in Iraq, because of its strategic importance to the United States. In July, Biden announced the end of the U.S. combat mission in Iraq, which appears as a rebranding of U.S. troops’ mission. It, therefore, seems that the Biden administration sought to provide internal support for Kadhimi, who was under pressure from pro-Iran militias to expel all foreign troops from Iraq.

It is also important to note that the U.S.-Sadr tensions that existed in the past have clearly diminished over time. “The U.S. still has some concerns about…al-Sadr in that he was responsible for attacks on U.S. soldiers in 2004 but because he has refashioned himself as an Iraqi nationalist as opposed to an Iranian ally that he once was, this concern has lessened over time,” Aftandilian said. Sadr appears to see Tehran’s leverage in Iraq as a challenge to his own influence. His control over the political scene is likely to pose challenges for both Washington and Tehran. However, it is also fair to say that Sadr and Washington share various interests, such as their backing of Kadhimi. Indeed, the U.S. is likely to continue to monitor the formation of the new cabinet, especially after the attack on the PM.

Forming a New Government and the Way Forward

No electoral bloc earned a majority in the recent elections. The challenge now lies in the formation of a new government and the naming of a prime minister. Sadr’s victory and the attack on the Al-Kadhimi’s house could increase the likelihood of another term for him as premier. The Sunni and Kurdish factions currently anticipate what might emerge from the talks among the Shiite blocs before proceeding with any negotiations to form the new cabinet.

Two factors inform negotiations among Iraq’s Shiite blocs. On a practical level, it will not be possible to sideline Sadr after his victory. Nor can Maliki and Fatah be left out. Maliki has long been known to have a problematic relationship with Sadr, and the two may not be able to forge a smooth working relationship, especially after the assassination attempt that targeted Al-Kadhimi. In 2018, for instance, Sadr reportedly said that partnering with Maliki was not an option. Although their rivalry cannot be ignored, it is likely that forming a government will depend on their ability to cooperate while preserving significant portions of their agendas. The stakes are high. Fatah may simply return to the use of violence if it feels that it has been shut out of the new government. Thus, including the party in the cabinet would be a way to avoid further instability in Iraq.

It would be unsurprising to see both the Taqqadum and the KDP present in the new cabinet. Indeed, many Sunnis and Kurds seek a unified body through which they may advance their electoral prospects. The Protest Movement is also expected to play a role, albeit minor. By gaining nine seats, the party could play a valuable role as a “responsible opposition.”

The assassination attempt and the fact that various parties lack common ground suggest that the path toward a new government will not be easy, therefore, politicians and parties should prioritize Iraq’s future over their own agendas. Otherwise, their disputes and divisions will only weaken Iraq’s already tenuous position, rather than taking the country forward and addressing the population’s needs. If they fail in this, it is likely that Iraqis will not forgive their political elites. The fact that the Protest Movement gained nine seats in the latest elections should be a lesson for the political elites that the Iraqi public’s lack of trust can translate into tangible efforts to hold public officials accountable in elections. Whether Iran just sanctioned the attack or actively pushed for it, it seems they hold at least some responsibility for it, if not just for the fact of not reigning in their militia allies. While Iran does not want a destabilized Iraq, they are not doing much to prevent their militia allies from escalating violence. As for who orchestrated the attack, it is almost certainly some of the Iranian-backed militias that are responsible, but it remains to be seen if this will be announced publicly by the Iraqi government.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Gulf International Forum.

Abdulaziz Kilani is a British-Arab writer, who focuses on the Middle East and North Africa region. His articles and work have been published by several media outlets, including Middle East Eye, Responsible Statecraft, The American Conservative, and The Globe Post. He tweets as @AZ_Kilani.

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