Preliminary results in Iraq’s first general election since 2014 indicate that the country remains as confused and politically disorientated as it has been since the illegal US/UK invasion of 2003. At the moment, throughout much of the south and centre of the country, including in the capital Baghdad, a coalition led by the controversial Shi’a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr called Alliance of Revolutionaries for Reform is the clearly domineering party.
— Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis (@MidEast_Center) May 14, 2018
Far from a confirmation of Iraq’s post-2003 turn towards semi-theocratic Shi’a Islamic politics, Al-Sadr is unique in the entire Shi’a world in calling for the downfall of Syria’s legitimate President Bashar Al-Assad. Al-Sadr is of course equally unique in the Shi’a world in respect of his recent attempted rapprochement with Saudi Arabia in spite of his fathers historic support for Iran during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, a move considered clearly treasonous by the Iraqi government of the 1980s. The election further confirms that Al-Sadr’s coalition is both opportunistic and dangerous as it includes members of the infamous Iraqi Communist Party, a party with a historic record of drawing a base among Kurdish ethno-nationalists while otherwise undermining Arab Nationalist parties in a state that is overwhelmingly Arab. It is no secret that after the Ramadan Revolution of 1963, the USSR began forming close relations with Iraq’s Arab Socialist Ba’ath party which were retained until the last years of the USSR’s existence, while the Communists in Iraq remained a marginal party on the outermost extremes of society.
Clearly, Al-Sadr gambled on unifying a combination of winning clerical symbolism with erstwhile obscure “protest parties” such as the Communists, in an attempt to triangulate the following factions:
a. Those with personal loyalty to the still powerful Al-Sadr family
b. The disaffected who would vote for failed parties like the Communists as a “protest vote” against both the post-2003 and pre-2003 status quo
c. Those who correctly identify Al-Sadr as a man who cloaks himself in Shi’a symbolism but who acts independent of the Shi’a resistance of Iran, the rest of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon as his forays in Riyadh indicate. Indeed this attitude has gained Al-Sadr a clear rebuke from Tehran that should not be ignored
After Al-Sadr, the most dominating faction is the new Fatah Alliance led by anti-terrorist veteran Hadi Al-Amiri. Unlike the chameleon Al-Sadr, Al-Amiri is part of the formal Islamic Resistance and has won praise both from Tehran and members of Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Units, the volunteer brigades who helped to secure Iraq’s victory over Daesh.
However, based on the current results, the situation may be one where the only way Al-Amiri can get close to power is by forming some sort of pact with Al-Sadr’s rag-tag coalition of obscurantists. However, while the centre-right/moderate State of Law Coalition of Nouri Al-Maliki and the Tahalof Alnasr (Victory Alliance) of Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi did far poorer than many had foreseen, there is a possibility of a grand coalition between Al-Amiri’s faction, Al-Abadi’s and Al-Maliki’s. Indeed, such a coalition if mathematically workable, could be the only assured way of keeping Al-Sadr’s faction out of power.
In the north of Iraq, support for all of the rival Kurdish parties collapsed but due to a combination of demography and corruption, Kurdish factions still made a strong showing in the north east. That being said, many ethnic Iraqi Turkmen as well as Sunni Muslim Arabs in the north took to the streets to protest results they felt were marred by broken voting machines that were allegedly rigged in favour of Kurdish parties in areas with a strong Arab and Turkmen population. The protests by Sunni Arabs and Turkmen against Kurdish meddling in the political process in northern Iraq recall similar scenes from the autumn of 2017 when Kurdish nationalists illegally held a secessionist referendum, including in Kirkuk which has never been part of any Kurdish autonomous region.
— Ali Özkök (@Ozkok_) May 13, 2018
The preliminary results indicate that Iraq is once again at a dangerous crossroads where Sunni Muslims and Turkmen are facing discrimination both from Kurdish factions in the north as well as from the emerging new coalitions in Baghdad and parts of southern Iraq that are implicitly hostile to their interests. While Al-Sadr was careful to tone down his Shi’a identity by coalescing with Communists, the reality is that 20th century Iraqi history shows that the Iraqi Communist Party has a history of hostility both to political Arabism and to Turkey, the natural regional protector of Turkmen in Arab states.
There now exists a very real possibility that Sunni Arab and Sunni Turkmen areas in northern Iraq could began to move towards succession if they feel their grievances are continually ignored by Baghdad. Furthermore, if the centre and south of the country become dominated by Al-Sadr’s coalition, there’s a strong possibility that in the short-term Iran might distance itself from Iraq in the event of pseudo-Iraqi nationalism being tainted by Al-Sadr’s unique brand of calculated antagonism towards both his old “friends” in Iran and has open hostility to Iran’s genuine Syrian ally. At such a moment, one could imagine Iraq segregating into four separate entities:
1. A Sunni Arab/Turkmen state in the northwest
2. A Kurdish state in the northeast
3. A Shi’a state dominated by conflicting factions in the centre and south
4. An isolated Sunni province in Al-Anbar to the west
Under such a scenario Turkey would come to be the dominating force behind the first new entity, the US and possibly “Israel” in the second, Iran would work to promote pro-Tehran factions in the third while Saudi Arabia might be able to turn Anbar into a client state on the Syrian border.
The chaos in Iraq which now puts the future of the Arab state in jeopardy is the result of a decades long power vacuum created by the illegal ouster of Saddam Hussein and his Arab Socialist Ba’ath party. By contrast, in Syria where a rival division of the Ba’ath party remains in power, one sees a cohesive state with a multi-confessional/multi-ethnic army that is in its majority comprised of Sunni Arabs, the most numerous faction in Syria.
Likewise, the People’s Council of Syria, the country’s legislature is comprised of men and women from all congressional and ethno-congressional elements of the country. The key to Syria’s survival in a seven years long proxy/hybrid war against it, has been its steadfast Ba’athist leadership which promotes an inclusive Arab unity over sectarian considerations.
While anti-Damascus media outlets try to proffer a sectarian narrative about Syria, the fact is that the majority of Syrians have rallied behind their Ba’athist government which is now scoring victory after victory against foreign sponsored terrorists.
In Iraq, the opposite is true. The recent elections which were held prematurely given the fragility of post-Daesh Iraqi society, have exposed very real divides that have been exploited by foreign regimes, particularly the United States. What’s even more crucial is that the US and others have only been able to exploit these divides because of the decades long power vacuum in Iraq that has yet to be filled by any strong and unifying leader.
A country like Iraq can only function when one puts a priority on strong Arab Nationalist leadership rather than on a multi-party state which can and likely has inevitably descended into sectarian deadlock. Under Ba’athist President Ahmed Hassan Al-Bakr, Iraq reached its highest living standards of the modern era and sectarian violence was at a minimum. His much more controversial successor Saddam Hussein was justifiably criticised in many quarters of the Arab world and beyond, not least because he prohibited Al-Bakr from making peace with Syria’s Arab Socialist Ba’ath party in the late 1970s. Then there was Saddam’s infamous war against Iran which plunged the region into turmoil. Yet in hindsight, even Saddam for all of his known flaws, was a far better leader than anyone in Baghdad since 2003. The reason for this is that Saddam, like Al-Bakr was in fact a leader of state. Today, most aspiring Iraqi leaders, are merely leaders of sects and fractious factions.