A political bloc representing Iranian-backed militias has rejected preliminary results in Iraq’s parliamentary elections after it lost more than half of its seats in a result that underlined Iraqis’ frustration with armed factions that have stoked fear and instability across the country.
The overall winner of the election was Moqtada al Sadr, a populist cleric whose core constituency of working class Shia supporters voted while the majority of Iraqis stayed at home.
His Sairoon party, which benefited from a record low turnout of 41 per cent, expanded its share of parliamentary seats from 54 to 73, giving it the biggest bloc of lawmakers in the 329-seat parliament.
The Fatah Alliance, which represents pro-Iran militia groups that have attacked US troops and assets in Iraq and have been accused of using violence against protesters, has secured just 20 seats, down from 48 seats previously, according to data compiled by the Clingendael Institute, a think-tank. Official results are not expected for weeks.
“We will not accept these fabricated results, whatever the cost,” Hadi al-Ameri, an influential militia commander and the leader of Fatah’s coalition told a pro-militia news outlet. In a statement, Fatah said it would appeal against the election results.
The elections, the fifth since the US-led invasion of 2003, had been brought forward six months in response to protesters’ demands for sweeping political change to a state riddled with corruption. Hundreds of demonstrators were killed and intimidated by security forces and militia groups during the October 2019 demonstrations, followed by kidnappings and assassinations of activists. Many nascent political parties, complaining of intimidation, boycotted the election.
Sadr, who portrays himself as an Iraqi nationalist and was once dubbed by American media as the “most dangerous man in Iraq” because his militants led the Shia resistance to the US-led occupation, has pledged to rid Iraq of foreign influence, including Tehran’s.
Some western policymakers had hoped he would serve as a counterweight to a pro-Iranian groups such as Fatah, analysts said. In his victory speech, Sadr, who still commands his own militia, said weapons should be banned “even for those [militias] who claim to be resistance” — a nod to the more militant pro-Iranian factions that have targeted American troops.
But despite the lack of support at the ballot box, the threat of violence from powerful pro Iranian militias will make it difficult to reduce their influence. “The fact that these factions have now a marginal role in parliament is not necessarily good news and could lay the ground for them to return to violence,” said Maria Fantappie, MENA special adviser with the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue.
Attacks on US assets by Iran-linked militias have declined as tensions de-escalated between Iran and the new Biden administration. But Fantappie said this relative peace could be at risk: “It will very much depend on the type of majority that will be formed after the elections and whether a compromise could be reached to persuade some of these groups to refrain from a return to violence and accept the elections’ result.”
The Iraqi system is designed to ensure some representation for all the country’s ethnicities and sects, but no single group can secure a majority, meaning elections are followed by lengthy negotiations before rival factions agree on a new prime minister and cabinet.
Current premier Mustafa al-Kadhimi is hoping for a second term and since taking office has relied on the Sadrist bloc for support.
Fanar Haddad, a former adviser to the premier, said Kadhimi “will take comfort from the Sadrist win.” Kadhimi could yet face competition from pro-Iran ex-prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, whose bloc secured 37 seats, complicating Kadhimi’s chances of returning to power.
“It’s not so straightforward,” said Haddad. “Maliki has secured quite a substantial vote, Fatah are not going to be excluded and they may stipulate that they are against a second Kadhimi term.”
Maliki is an old ally of an array of Iran-linked Shia Islamist militias, who were brought under the Iraqi state’s security wing after they fought Isis and were hailed as heroes.
But in the years since then militants, some of whom belonged to the Hashd al-Shaabi or Popular Mobilisation Forces, have “been preying on people, they’ve been affiliated with harming activists,” said Marsin Alshamary, a research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School. “And public opinion has turned against them.”
Despite the public backlash, militias’ sheer military might makes them more dangerous outside of government, analysts said.
“It is a big risk if we leave out Fatah and the PMF-aligned groups,” said Sajad Jiyad, Baghdad-based fellow at The Century Foundation. “I think they will end up being part of government formation because the risk is too great of leaving them out.”