Iraqi Election: Contest between Iran's Challenger and America's Incumbent

Iraqi Election: Contest between Iran's Challenger and America's Incumbent

Sunday, 13 May, 2018 - 07:00
An Iraqi security member votes at a polling station in Baghdad. (Reuters)
Baghdad - Tamer El-Ghobashy
Hadi al-Ameri, the stout chief of one of Iraq's most powerful paramilitary groups, had crisscrossed the country ahead of Saturday’s national elections. At one campaign rally after another, he headlined a ticket stocked mostly with men like himself: soldiers who are vying to be the next class of Iraqi statesmen.

On the stump, he constantly resisted the view widely held in Baghdad and Washington that he is Iran's man in Iraq - Tehran's best hope for cementing its influence in a country where it invested heavily in expelling the ISIS terrorist group.

But in fact, for more than three decades, Ameri has fought for and most recently commanded a militia armed and trained by Iran that has been crucial in extending Iranian influence in Iraq.

Ameri and his election coalition, called Fatah, or Conquest, could present the main challenge to Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, who has eschewed the traditional rhetoric of sectarianism and Shiite supremacy for a more inclusive Iraqi nationalism.

While Abadi has tried as prime minister to steer a course between US and Iranian interests, he is the favored candidate of US officials, and the election is widely seen by many Iraqi politicians and analysts as a contest pitting the United States' incumbent against Iran's challenger.

In overseeing the battle last year to oust ISIS from Iraqi territory, Abadi relied heavily on American air power and ground forces, while Ameri has commanded forces armed and trained by Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps. Ameri's Badr Organization was founded in Tehran in the 1980s to fight against then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

How the competing tickets fared at the polls will have a broad impact on how the country deals with its main allies, Iran and the United States, as tensions escalate between the two powers.

Trump's announcement this week that he is pulling the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal has raised concerns that the rivalry between Washington and Tehran will play out in Iraq, destroying what has been four years of nominal cooperation in the fight against ISIS.

The two countries have kept an unusually low profile in Iraq's election, refraining from public statements in support of any candidate. Analysts say the US decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal could push Iran to become more assertive.

"Iran will fight fiercely to control everything in Iraq, markets, economy, oil," said Ghalib al-Shahbandar, a political analyst and former Iraqi politician.

Ameri and others in his election coalition do not deny that they have strong ties to Iran, but they bristle at the notion that they are agents of Tehran. They have shed their military fatigues for business suits and adopted Abadi's centrist rhetoric of a strong and unified Iraq that takes no sides in regional conflicts.

During a recent interview at his well-appointed and heavily guarded house in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone, Ameri was clearly exhausted from campaigning and barely able to keep his eyes open. But they opened wide at the mention of Iran, and he leaned forward in his chair.

"Iran is broke," he said with a smile, suggesting that it did not have enough spare cash to underwrite his campaign. He denied that Iran has been funding his election coalition.

Ameri's coalition has run on a platform of fighting corruption, diversifying Iraq's oil-dependent economy and nourishing the country's private sector. The candidates on his ticket uniformly oppose the presence of US forces in Iraq and have said Abadi is too closely aligned with Washington.

But most of all, they have touted their battlefield victories against ISIS and insisted that the paramilitary group that underpins their influence remain a semi-autonomous part of Iraq's security forces. That group, an umbrella for dozens of militias, musters nearly 150,000 fighters.

Ameri's forces are part of that group, what is called the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). The militias that comprise it were deputized by the government to counter ISIS as it overran nearly one-third of Iraq in 2014. Many of these militias are backed by Iran and fought fiercely against American troops after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The militias now have legal status in Iraq and are ostensibly under the command of the prime minister. A representative of the militias sits on Iraq's National Security Council and is not answerable to the Defense Ministry or the Interior Ministry.

Contrary to Abadi's stated policy of not interfering in regional conflicts, some of the militias have sent fighters to Syria who are in combat alongside Iranian and Syrian forces in support of regime head Bashar Assad.

US officials have pushed Abadi to shrink the PMF and subordinate them to Iraq's police and army. But the prime minister has been reluctant to challenge the militia leaders, who are popular because of their role in defeating ISIS.

Ameri is perhaps the most influential of those leaders. In recent weeks, his face has been ubiquitous on election posters plastering Iraq's streets. He has positioned himself as the alternative to Abadi - a decisive, battle-hardened field commander who will eradicate terrorism while elevating Iraq's international prestige.

As a result, the election is in part also a test of Iraqis' appetite for a government with a decidedly military character over a civilian-led one.

Ameri says that building a strong state would defeat what he calls "the Triangle of Death" that has bedeviled Iraq: terrorism, sectarianism and corruption.

The Washington Post

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