Iraqi voters have a rare chance to weaken Tehran’s grip
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Baria Alamuddin

Iraqi voters have a rare chance to weaken Tehran’s grip

Pity the Iraqi people. Once again they are being called upon to vote for representatives who will never represent them, and public servants who have only ever served themselves. Most citizens probably won’t bother to vote, and who can blame them? However, no less than Iraq’s identity and sovereignty are at stake. When Iraqis fail to make their voices heard, foreign enemies become empowered to dictate their interests.

For the first time since voting began in 2005, one figure is notably absent: Qassim Soleimani, the Iranian warlord who used to be everywhere in the months before and after elections, engineering Tehran-aligned political blocs to dominate the vote, and then dictating who got to be prime minister. Nouri Al-Maliki lost the election in 2010, but thanks to months of personal effort by Soleimani he kept his job while his victorious rival, Iyad Al-Alawi, was pushed aside. The price Maliki paid for power was moving wholly into Tehran’s orbit and allowing Iraq to fall under the sway of Iran-dominated militias. Thanks to a drone missile courtesy of Donald Trump, Soleimani and paramilitary commander Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis will struggle to manipulate these elections from beyond the grave — although the death-cult ayatollahs’ regime in Tehran remains determined not to relinquish its murderous grip.

Something else has changed definitively since 2018: The advent of mass protests by furious citizens in Shiite areas crying out against social injustice and undue Iranian influence. After protesters burned down Iranian proxy offices, pro-Iranian paramilitaries staged a brutal crackdown, with hundreds of indiscriminate killings followed by an unceasing succession of broad daylight targeted killings against activists — several of whom were seen as potential credible candidates in elections. Where once Hashd paramilitaries were widely popular for their (often exaggerated) role in fighting Daesh, the Hashd are today almost universally loathed.

Although these early elections are a demand of the Tishreen protest movement that emerged in October 2019, faced with the hostility of established political forces, protesters have struggled to transform popular anger into credible electoral prospects. Indeed, women and liberal candidates have frequently had their promotional billboards vandalised, or suffered physical attacks and death threats.

There is a parallel in Lebanon, where ruling parties have been thoroughly discredited by corruption, incompetence and their role as proxies for a hostile state. Yet young, progressive and non-sectarian voices nevertheless have a mountain to climb, in part because everyone believes that their participation in the elections won’t be enough to change anything — when in fact, if everybody did participate decisively, they could move mountains.

Through massive manipulation of the vote, the Hashd’s list in 2018 came near the top of the ballot in traditionally Sunni majority areas such as Salahuddin and Diyala. This time, in locations such as Kirkuk and Nineveh, where Hashd mafiosi exert a stranglehold on the economy and society, the polls should be monitored carefully.  

The Hashd’s “Fatah Alliance” in 2018 won a miserable 48 out of 329 seats, yet partly thanks to Soleimani’s bullying tactics it managed to dominate parliament. If the Oct. 10 election is free and fair (and if the Hashd doesn’t get the vote delayed or cancelled), these Iranian proxies would be lucky to win half these seats.

Although the potential exists for this to be a moment when the puppets of Tehran suffer a richly deserved defeat, there are reasons to be skeptical. It was estimated in 2018 that actual electoral turnout was about 30 percent. In such circumstances, well-mobilized factions can turn their supporters and subordinates out in high numbers and dominate the vote.

As just one example of Iran’s exploitation of Iraqi weakness, amid regionwide water shortages, Baghdad is threatening to take Tehran to the international courts for stealing Iraq’s water supplies, leading to a disastrous reduction in water availability for agriculture. Iraq's Minister of Water Resources claimed: "We have indications that Iran is digging tunnels and changing the course of waterflow.”

Western diplomats have largely thrown their support behind Muqtada Al-Sadr, believing that the influential cleric is primarily an Iraqi nationalist, opposed to Iran-backed militias. Sadrists won 54 seats in the last election, making them the largest faction in parliament and widely predicted to be the biggest winners this time. Secretive meetings have been reported between Sadrist politicians and Western diplomats, reportedly with a behind-the-scenes agreement that Sadr allow Mustafa Al-Kadhimi to remain as prime minister.

Yet Sadr emerged from the same ideological and paramilitary origins as these Iran-backed forces. He has changed sides and positions on so many occasions that who knows what he stands for any more? When his representatives controlled ministries, there were the worst excesses of corruption, cronyism and gangsterism. At one point, Sadrist officials at the Health Ministry were lending ambulances to Sadrist death squads. Opponents have been quick to blame the Sadrist mismanagement of the health sector after dozens of people died in two major hospital fires.

In recent Russian elections, liberal oppositionists were advising citizens in certain constituencies to “hold their noses” and vote for the communists as the only possible potential means of weakening Vladimir Putin. Iraqis are in a similar position: Whichever party they vote for won’t reduce unemployment, improve services or act on citizens’ behalf, but at least they can vote for parties who won’t sell their country out to a hostile neighbor.

In both Lebanon and Iraq, Tehran-backed minority factions have thoroughly manipulated the political system to consolidate their power, even as the nations themselves disintegrate under economic stagnation, theft of state funds, paramilitary violence, narcotics and weapons proliferation, and mushrooming sectarian tensions. They are able to do so only because most citizens don’t believe that their vote carries the power to realize real change and protect their nations’ sovereign identity.

For the sake of Iraq, for the sake of the Arab world, for the sake of humanity — swallow your cynicism and bring everyone you know out to vote in the largest possible numbers, to slay this cancer that is corrupting the very soul of our region.

Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect IFIMES official position.

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