Iraq Election Drubbing Leaves Iran Scrambling to Save Its Militias

Hussain Abdul-Hussain

There was plenty of political drama when Iraq’s parliament held its first session this week since the October election.

Amid the theatrics and walkouts, the meeting illustrated the magnitude of the defeat suffered by the parties loyal to the Iranian regime in the fourth election since the toppling of Saddam Hussein.

The rejection of Tehran’s favored candidates has rendered its bloc in Iraq’s parliament irrelevant in the jostling to form a new government.

But if history is any guide, there should be concern that whenever Tehran loses out in elections in countries where it wants to hold sway, it resorts to obstruction, then violence.

On Sunday, as stipulated by parliament’s bylaws, the eldest member Mahmood Al Mashhadani called the meeting to order. On the agenda was the election of a speaker and his two deputies. But Mashhadani had something else in mind.

What transpired highlighted the complexities of Iraq’s political landscape with divides along religious lines, affiliations with foreign powers and a web of alliances.

The pro-Iran bloc, an alliance of six Shia parties operating under the name of the Coordination Framework, instigated that Mashhadani should run for speaker in an effort to split its opponents.

The leader of the bigger Sunni party, Mohamed Al Halbousi, was running for a second term as speaker and enjoyed the support of all the anti-Iran blocs.

After much jostling, attempts to halt the session, including Mashhadani claiming he needed to be rushed to hospital, and a spectacularly misjudged walkout by the pro-Iran bloc, the meeting proceeded, and Al Halbousi was re-elected speaker for a second term.

A Shia from the bloc that follows cleric Muqtada Al Sadr was elected as his first deputy and a Kurd, from the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), became the second deputy. Iraq, or at least its parliament, could live without Tehran’s members.

The election of Al Halbousi, a Sunni, and his two deputies, a Shia and a Kurd, suggested that a ruling coalition is emerging without the need for the pro-Iran Coordination Framework.

The coalition consists of the Shia Sadrist bloc, the two Sunni blocs of Al Halbousi and Al Khanjar and the two Kurdish blocs of the KDP and the Kurdistan Patriotic Union. Al Sadr has also managed to win over a small bloc of five independents, bringing the total to 164 MPs, only one short of the majority required to name a premier.

Tehran knows that Al Sadr now has the numbers – as well as the support of the Shia religious leadership in Najaf – to pick a Shia prime minister and form a cabinet without Iran’s proteges. If that happens, it would be the first time since 2003 that the pro-Iran bloc is out of power.

Tehran fears that such a cabinet would insist on disbanding the powerful militias that it funds and arms. This is why the Coordination Framework has been desperate to get into the new coalition, hoping to win veto power from within and try to stop the process of breaking up these armed groups.

The Coordination Framework has met with Al Sadr and tried to convince him to form a “national unity” government. Al Sadr tentatively agreed and invited the pro-Iran bloc to submit its demands. It requested that former Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki becomes vice president and his bloc gets eight cabinet portfolios, including two out of the five most important ministries – foreign affairs, defense, interior, finance and oil.

Al Sadr rejected the demands, aware that Al Maliki is associated with the old ruling establishment whose popularity has been tanking.

While Tehran seeks to join Al Sadr’s ruling coalition at any price, it cannot dump Al Maliki and lose his party’s 33-seats, the biggest bloc of the six-party framework.

This has put Tehran in a bind: Drop Al Maliki and the Framework will suffer further irrelevance, or keep Al Maliki and stay outside power, thus threatening the future of its militias.

Facing such a conundrum Tehran has instructed its factions to sit out and call the process illegitimate. The pro-Iran parties already tried to reject the election results, but things moved on without them. The Framework’s legislators then attended parliament’s swearing in. But they walked out of parliament, arguing that they did not recognize Al Halbousi’s election.

In the past, whenever Tehran refers to due process as illegitimate, violence – including drone attacks, bombings and assassinations – follows. Whenever the Iran regime loses an election, domestic or in satellite countries, things always boil down to force.

Iraqis might well be advised to remain vigilant. A wounded beast usually becomes more ferocious.

Hussain Abdul-Hussain is a research fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, DC.