By Xander Snyder
It’s no secret that Iran is heavily involved and highly influential in Iraq. But Iraq’s parliamentary elections in May raised the question of just how much influence it has. After all, the winner was the coalition led by Muqtada al-Sadr, the firebrand Shiite cleric who once led the Mahdi Army, one of the tools Iran used to counter the United States during the Iraq war in the 2000s. And the other top finishers included the coalition of outgoing Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who never shrunk from working with Iran when necessary, and the coalition of Hadi al-Amiri, who is staunchly pro-Iran.
Events of the past week may have provided a partial answer.
Al-Sadr’s Sairoon Alliance entered into a partnership with al-Abadi’s Victory Alliance – a surprising turn of events, considering Sairoon had announced a partnership with al-Amiri’s Fatah Alliance the previous week. The partnership between Sairoon and Fatah seemed to indicate that not only was Iran in Iraqi politics to stay but it was strong enough to enhance its role in Baghdad’s affairs. That may no longer be the case.
To be sure, Fatah’s electoral victory still guarantees Iran access to the Iraq government. In fact, reports have surfaced that the now-defunct alliance between it and Sairoon was the result of lobbying efforts by Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force, and the son Iran’s supreme leader.
But the intrigue surrounding the alliances is less the work of covert actions by Iran and more the normal political jockeying that happens anytime coalitions form a government in a parliamentary system. And Iraq’s system is more crowded than most. Dozens of parties participated in the elections, and not even the top three parties together obtained the necessary 165 seats to form a government. They will need additional support from Sunni and Kurdish parties to flesh out the remaining 22 seats required to secure a majority.
So just how much power does Iran have in Iraq? The unsatisfying answer is: a lot, but maybe not as much as many expected it to have. Al-Abadi, always willing to work with Tehran, is rumored to be gunning for a second term as a compromise prime minister. Over the past few days, reports have surfaced that he is willing to withdraw from his own Islamic Dawa Party in exchange for retaining his position – just as al-Sadr demanded him to.
Al-Sadr, for his part, is a self-identified Iraqi nationalist, and he has largely lived up to the title. In the fight against the Islamic State, his Saraya al-Salam brigades, one of many groups that make up the Popular Mobilization Forces, openly cooperate with the Iraqi Security Forces. This stands in stark contrast to other PMF militias, many of which are pro-Iran groups that act independently of and sometimes contradict the orders of Iraqi central command. In the 2014 siege of Mosul, for example, al-Amiri’s Badr Organization was ordered to surround the city on three sides, allowing citizens and IS fighters to escape into Syria. Instead, he ordered his fighters to envelope Mosul and fight IS to the death so that the jihadists could not regroup in Syria and fight the Assad government, which Iran supports.
Al-Sadr has also openly advocated for the incorporation of PMF militias into the official Iraqi security command structure, a move that would subject even his own militias to centralized control, including budgetary oversight. Militias such as al-Amiri’s have scoffed at the idea. Not only do they not want to, they don’t need to, considering that they get most of their financial support from Iran.
Not that Iran’s militias in Iraq are untouchable. Last week, a member of the Hezbollah Brigades, a pro-Iranian PMF, was arrested by senior Iraqi government officials. But for the most part, Iran’s militias are influential and will continue to be. And where Iran controls guns, it will hold substantial power. With Iraqi nationalists at the helm, though, that power will not be unchecked.