Electorally Defeated Iran-Aligned Groups Desperately Fighting for Guarantees of Governance and Protection
The house of Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi was attacked by three drone attacks on November 7, 2021, following clashes between the Iraqi security forces and supporters of Iran-backed groups that had lost many seats in the last elections that took place on October 10. PM al-Kadhimi survived the attack, and the governments of the United States, United Nations, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, and other countries condemned the attack.
Iran-backed groups denied responsibility for the attack despite their social media accounts publicly threatening to escalate things, in addition to the attendance of Qais al-Khazali, leader of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, to the protests and publicly threatening al-Kadhimi’s government. Nonetheless, not taking responsibility for the attack is an expected move to avoid legal persecution.
The Iran-backed groups associated with the Fatah Alliance led by Hadi al-Ameri, State of Law Coalition (SoL) led by former PM Nouri al-Maliki, the newly established Harakat Huqooq (an affiliate of Kataib Hizbullah), and other similar groups are known for representing Iran’s agenda in Iraq’s regional proxy politics, particularly within the Popular Mobilization Forces known as Hashd al-Sha’abi.
However, the attack must not be single-viewed as an attempt to target to al-Kadhimi himself, nor it is just a response to their major loss in the last parliamentary elections. It is part of a wider challenge or target they are conducting against the Iraqi state and the potential political, governmental formation in response to the targeting they as Iran-backed groups have been facing.
We will view how the Iran-aligned groups are challenging the current Iraqi government, certain political parties, and its hostile popular opposition in chronological order from pre- to post-early elections that took place in October 2021.
Iran-Aligned Groups’ Position During Pre-Early Elections
To begin with, in October 2019, Iraq witnessed nationwide protests known as the Tishreen Uprising, which called for reforms, systematic change, end to corruption and sectarianism, and regional interventionism – it was clear that the protesters, activists, and researchers were facing political violence from the very same armed groups that claimed to liberate Iraq from DAESH. These groups are the ones arguably protesting against al-Kadhimi’s government and denouncing the integrity of the elections, which they, for years, praised and promoted for. The same protests carried a discourse of heavy critique towards the Iran-aligned militias’ corruption and violence. This rise of widespread anger towards the Iran-backed groups, in addition to Iran’s attempt to further empower Hashd and increase its dominance over it, led to the gradual distancing of groups that are aligned with the clergy of Najaf and mainly Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, which consequentially led to a major intra-Hashd rivalry.
These events also preceded with certain failed attempts by PM al-Kadhimi to end impunity by certain pro-Iran Hashd leaders, such as the case of Qasim Muslih, Hashd’s head in Anbar’s province, who is accused of assassinating protesters. Despite Muslih’s release without persecution, al-Kadhimi established for himself a major hostility within the pro-Iran factions.
Most importantly, the US assassination of the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani and his Iraqi associate in Hashd, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, in January 2020, which created a significant and chaotic power vacuum which is still evident within the pro-Iran groups in Iraq.
Post-Early Elections Challenges Faced by Iran-Aligned Groups
In the last early elections on October 10, Fatah Alliance won 17 parliamentary seats in contrast to their 48 seats won in the 2018 parliamentary elections, this is a huge loss to their parliamentary influence, it also represents a considerable setback to their political and social influence which they believed was an asset they enjoyed from Iraq’s victory (which they were a part of) against DAESH in 2017. Maliki-led SoL also gained 34 seats only, which represents minor influence in comparison to the other political parties. Moreover, the major defeat by Harakat Huqooq was also a major surprise given the strong media campaign driving it.
It is also now more evident than ever that the Sadrist Movement with 73 seats and Taqadum Party led by Mohamed Al-Halbousi (current speaker of parliament) and Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party will form a majority government with some other alliances with other parties.
Equally important, the negotiations to propose the upcoming Prime Minister will either be to continue the term with current PM Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who’s in good alignment with all the previously mentioned leaders, or the Sadrist might propose a Sadrist candidate, which so far seems to be unlikely.
Fatah Alliance and its supporters are aware that they currently do not enjoy the influence to name a Prime Minister, nor most of the power ministries. However, they want unofficial or official guarantees from al-Sadr, al-Halboosi, and Barzani, and most importantly al-Kadhimi (as a potential future head of government) – that they will not target, limit, or minimize the political role of Hashd, particularly its Iran-affiliated groups.
Apart from the previously mentioned incentives of al-Kadhimi limiting the Iran-backed groups’ political and institutional influence - al-Sadr has openly advocated for Hashd’s disarmament and to centralize all the military activities under the state’s command. Therefore, the stances of Barzani and al-Halboosi towards Hashd’s future are also aligned with al-Kadhimi and al-Sadr.
Last Pressure Cards, ‘Violent Disobedience’
Therefore, this means that such a government will end up changing Hashd’s status-quo in Iraqi politics and governance. It also means that Iran will lose a substantial grip of influence in Iraq at a time when anti-Iranian interventionism is evident in the political discourse of the October protest movement (Tishreen) and the youth.
Now given the major parliamentary defeat they have faced, they are now desperately pressuring the government to ensure that the upcoming government considers and acknowledges their involvement and protection in the forthcoming period.
Dr. Fanar Haddad, a former senior advisor to PM al-Kadhimi and author of Understanding ‘Sectarianism’: Sunni-Shia Relations in the Modern Arab World, told İRAM “the attack raised the bar and set a new precedent in political violence in what is already a violent political landscape. Since the elections, Fatah and other representatives of the fasa'il have sought ways of demonstrating the costs of excluding them from the forthcoming government. More to the point, their message is that electoral performance is not the sole determinant of political power and political entitlement”.
However, considering Iraq’s complex political dynamics that are not only limited to the states’ institutions but also includes the role and influence of paramilitary groups; the long-term objectives of the pressures committed by a political bloc with minor parliamentary influence, but the crucial military influence on the ground is not impossible.
Therefore, these attackers or protesters are using their last method of pressure, which is violence and a militarized destabilization attempt, since they lack parliamentary influence and are facing a significant popular opposition which heavily grew out of their violence towards the Tishreen protest movement activists.