Hope for democracy in Iraq as political violence escalates

Over the past month, there has been an increase in political violence in Iraq again.

But, instead of the US bases or convoys that are often attacked, there were some less-usual targets. Last week, grenades were thrown at offices belonging to Sunni Muslim and Iraqi Kurdish political parties in Baghdad.

On Sunday, grenades were lobbed at two Kurdish-owned banks in the capital.

On Monday, the house of a Shiite Muslim cleric in Muthanna province was attacked by gunmen.

And, earlier in January, a senior member of a Shiite paramilitary group was apparently assassinated in southeastern Maysan province.

Two were injured when assailants threw explosives at a Kurdish-owned bank in Baghdad

A common thread

As varied as they are, these targets all have something in common. They all did something to offend the losers in last October’s federal elections.

The parties that lost the ballot in October have been agitating for power in the next government despite their loss. And, although nobody has claimed responsibility for the attacks, experts said it was likely that those parties were now turning to violence to override election results. The recent uptick in attacks is the result of rising tensions as the formation of the country’s next government nears.

The winner of October’s federal elections was the Sairoun, or Forwards, alliance. Although no single party dominated, Sairoun gained the most parliamentary seats in the election, winning 73 out of the total 329. Sairoun is the political arm of the movement led by prominent Shiite Muslim cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr.

Meanwhile, the Fatah, or Conquest, alliance were the losers in the election. This group is also Shiite Muslim but is mostly associated with Iraq’s established paramilitaries, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces,or PMF. Fatah only managed to get 17 seats in parliament, where previously they had 48.

Misplaced loyalties

The PMF were first set up by mostly Shiite volunteers, who offered to defend the country against the extremist group known as the Islamic State (IS). At first, the PMF were seen as heroes but they have since become very unpopular among ordinary Iraqis.

This is partly because many PMF fighters still swear loyalty to neighboring Iran, rather than to their own country. Iran provided financial, logistical and even spiritual support during the fight against IS.

Since then, the Shiite paramilitaries themselves have also split between those known to be loyal to Iran and those who pledge allegiance to their own government. The latter group includes militias allied with al-Sadr.

Voters’ clear dislike of the PMF, and Fatah by association, has left them at a big disadvantage when it comes to government formation.

The PMF have become an official part of Iraq’s armed forces and are paid by the state

Rivalries among Shiites

In the past, when it came to building governments in Iraq, sectarian allegiances usually trumped all other considerations. Shiite Muslim politicians would stick together to share power and form the biggest bloc, allowing them to choose a president, who would then select a prime minister. This is no longer the case.

Rivalries between Shiite groups have been “the chief threat to Iraq’s Shia-dominated, ethno-sectarian political order for some time now,” Fanar Haddad, an assistant professor at the University of Copenhagen and expert on Iraqi politics and sectarianism, told DW. “These rivalries are not new, but they have seldom been this acute.”

The political landscape in Iraq has changed and can no longer “be managed through the prism of identity politics and appeals to communal solidarity,” Haddad said.

Iraq’s parliament held its first session of the year on January 9

In fact, al-Sadr, the behind-the-scenes leader of the victorious Sairoun alliance, has repeatedly said he wants to form a majority government that potentially excludes the Shiite Muslim parties associated with the Iran-loyalist paramilitaries. This includes Fatah.

Foreign influences

Earlier in January, al-Sadr’s Sairoun party joined with Kurdish and Sunni politicians to take the first step toward forming a new government by reelecting Mohamed al-Halbousi, a senior Sunni politician, as speaker of parliament.

This week, al-Sadr made another telling comment. “Neither eastern nor western. A national majority government,” he confirmed on his Twitter account, referring toIranian influence from the east and the US from the west.

The attacks on various PMF leaders, such as those allied with al-Sadr, as well as Sunni and Kurdish politicians, parties, and banks, are assumed to be the result of Fatah’s ongoing outrage at potentially being locked out of the next government.

“Even though nobody has claimed responsibility so far and although their [Fatah and PMF] leaders are condemning the attacks, I think the recent escalation in violence that we’re seeing is very likely to be a negotiation strategy,” said David Labude, a research associate at the Iraq and Syria field office of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, based in Lebanon. “Basically, Fatah didn’t win the votes they needed and now they’re playing hard ball with the government negotiators.”

For example, one of the Sunni Muslim politicians who had a grenade thrown at his Baghdad office told media that he’d also received threats at home.

A message was left in an envelope on his doorstep. It said “a national majority government will carry many consequences for you” and advised him to withdraw from negotiations with al-Sadr and not to interfere in Shiite politics, he recounted.

This pressure to overturn the legitimate outcome of the election through intimidation and violence comes amid rising hope that Iraq’s parliament might finally become more representative. A new electoral law means that, for the first time ever, there could be a genuine, independent opposition in Iraq’s parliament.

Iraq at a crossroads

The question now is which way the country will turn: toward more violence and a potential civil war between the armed Shiite factions or toward more genuine democracy.

“I think the most likely outcome is somewhere between these two extremes,” said Haddad, of Copenhagen University. “Political violence will continue and possibly escalate, but I think a deal is more likely than a descent into civil war. It is too costly to exclude any of the main players from the next government, and there is too much to lose for personal rivalries to get in the way of a deal.”

Cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has made it clear that he wants to exclude politicians loyal to Iran

Labude also said the dueling Shiite parties would likely eventually arrive at an agreement. The new electoral rule means that, although Fatah lost many seats in October last year, they still got a lot of votes, he noted.

Fatah and its allies have almost the same number of votes as al-Sadr’s Sairoun alliance. Additionally, if Sairoun enters a coalition with the Kurdish and Sunni parties, their MPs would ostensibly be outnumbered by the Kurdish and Sunni MPs, should they decide to unite against their Shiite partners.

“For the first time, the coming parliament seems likely to contain a formal opposition,” Haddad said, no matter how Shiite parties eventually coalesce.

“This is a welcome precedent in Iraqi politics,” Haddad said. “The size, integrity and effectiveness of this opposition remains to be seen. But, in the long term, it has the potential to challenge the intra-elite collusion that has defined post-2003 Iraqi politics.”

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Edited by: Sonia Phalnikar