By Manuel Almeida
April 6, 2018
The outcome of the Iraqi parliamentary elections scheduled for May 12 could end the more positive trajectory under the current leadership and inaugurate yet another troublesome chapter. Possibly, perhaps even most likely, these elections will institutionalize Lebanon’s Hezbollah model (in the most negative of senses) in Iraq.
Iraq’s political system since the US invasion already replicates Lebanon’s. After one-and-a-half decades of civil war in Lebanon, the Taif Agreement of 1989 set the stage for the end of the conflict and reformed the power-sharing system between the country’s main religious communities. In retrospect, Taif contributed to Lebanon’s political dysfunctionality: Syria, designated Lebanon’s post-war power-broker, mostly exacerbated divisions between Sunnis and Shiites; the agreement required Lebanese militias to disarm but it exempted Hezbollah, a critical step for Tehran’s ally to impose the militia as a state above the state; and it did not achieve its goal of gradually eliminating political confessionalism.
As with Lebanon, Iraq’s political system is equally dysfunctional and prone to deadlocks, paralysis and behind the stage machinations. Iraq’s constitution of 2005 does not explicitly allocate key political posts on a sectarian basis, but the positions of president, prime minister and speaker of parliament are effectively reserved for Shiites, Kurds and Sunnis respectively. Iran today plays a role in Iraq that is as influential and intrusive as the one Syria played in Lebanon even after withdrawal following the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
The fight against Daesh — a terrorist insurgency that the outright sectarian policies of former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, backed by Iran, helped create — provided a further opportunity for Iran to expand its political and strategic leverage. The Popular Mobilization Units, formed in 2014 in response to a call to arms by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani to confront Daesh, became a double-edged sword: A formidable fighting force that helped push back Daesh when the Iraqi army was nowhere to be seen, but also a predominantly Shiite armed movement parallel to and often in competition with the state. Various of these militias, which taken together are given the umbrella name of PMUs, have close operational and even ideological ties to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and are outright loyal to Tehran.
As anticipated, after substantive progress in the fight against Daesh last summer, Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider Abadi approved in early March a decree that formalized the inclusion of the PMU into Iraq’s security forces. But it is clear this process will not be all-encompassing. Some of these militias have heeded the call for disarmament and integration, while others have made no secret of their intention to remain outside the scope of Iraqi state control or supervision.
Last year, in a speech broadcast on Iraqi television, prominent Shiite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr called on his fighters to return all weapons provided by the government and hand over territory to Iraq’s regular security forces. Yet the spokesman of Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq, one of the militias with close ties to the IRGC, has rejected any possible integration into Iraq’s security forces while welcoming the salaries and other benefits guaranteed by March’s decree. The Iraqi state is now paying for armed groups that are loyal to a foreign government. In various cases, they have even fought in Syria to protect the murderous Assad regime alongside Iranian forces, Hezbollah and a whole array of Shiite militias loyal to Tehran.
The very short-lived electoral alliance between Abadi and the leaders of some hard-line militias attests to the growing political clout of these groups. Even more so when considering Abadi has proved his independence time and again, has voiced his opposition to Iran’s meddling in Iraqi affairs and has pursued a national reconstruction and reconciliation project.
However, the rapid unravelling of the alliance following a widespread outcry from Iraqis of all stripes also shows that Iraqi nationalism is alive and well.
The May elections are expected to provide a ticket to parliament for a substantial number of PMU leaders. If confirmed, the expansion of the Hezbollah model with both political and military wings will become an inescapable reality in Iraq.
In any scenario, the Iraqi militias loyal to Tehran will hardly be able to control Iraq with the same tight grip with which Hezbollah rules over Lebanon. Not only is Iraqi territory over 40 times the size of Lebanon’s, but there are other powerful armed groups across the spectrum willing and able to defend their corner. Rising tensions between these groups and Sunnis and Kurds, as well as with Iraq’s neighbors who are nervous about their presence, are guaranteed. A backlash from Iraqi Shiites, from secularists to nationalists, is also likely.
Still, the institutionalization of the Hezbollah model in Iraq is a worrisome development. The new political leverage of elected PMU leaders can be used to derail attempts to rein in the militias, push the Iraqi state to fund them and advance Tehran’s agenda. This will represent a substantial obstacle for the national reconciliation efforts of the coming government and will further undermine the sovereignty of the Iraqi state.