Fighters-turned-candidates vie for votes ahead of Iraqi elections
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Iraq heads to the polls on Saturday in its first general elections since last year's defeat of the Islamic State (IS) group. Candidates include former fighters and newly inclusive Islamists. But can they rebuild and reunite a destroyed nation?
Days ahead of Saturday’s parliamentary elections, Baghdad’s Liberation Square is a sea of blue flags fluttering alongside Iraqi national flags. The absence of the usual green colour, representing Islam, is marked, particularly since a Shiite Islamist party is holding a campaign rally at this square in the heart of the Iraqi capital.
Nearly 15 years after he shot to international fame for resisting the US military operation in Iraq, Muqtada al-Sadr has transformed himself from fiery, sectarian, Shiite cleric to an inclusive political player who has formed an alliance with secularists, including the Communist Party of Iraq (CPI).
The alliance, called Sayroon (the Marchers), is a throwback to the old days, around the time of the country’s birth, when Shiite and communist activists jointly agitated against the Iraqi monarchy.
“The Sayroon alliance is an alliance that is bringing together all the communities of Iraq, and it’s the only alliance that is bridging the sectarian divide,” explains Ahmad Abdelhussein, a liberal activist who has joined forces with the Sadrist movement.
Splits in the Shiite vote
Running on a nationalist agenda, the Sayroon alliance is one of a handful of groupings within the Shiite community, the majority group that has dominated Iraqi politics since the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein.
This Saturday May 12, Iraq holds its first general elections since declaring victory over the Islamic State (IS) group. More than 7,000 candidates and 88 political blocs are competing for the 329 seats in parliament.
Amid such a plethora of choices, one notable feature of the 2018 campaign trail is the fragmentation of Shia parties that could split the Shiite vote.
Abadi took over the premiership from Maliki in 2014 following the fall of Mosul and large swathes of northwestern Iraq to the IS group.
Just five months after the bloody battle against the jihadist group finally drew to a close, many candidates and alliances are capitalising on the IS group defeat on the campaign trail.
Abadi’s Victory coalition – or the Nasr coalition in Arabic -- is named after the victory against the IS group.
Another Shiite group, the Conquest alliance – or Fatah coalition in Arabic – is led by Hadi al-Amiri, head of a powerful paramilitary coalition that formed the backbone of the Iraqi fight against the IS group.
The hashd al-shaabi -- or Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF) -- is a powerful, Iran-backed militia force that emerged after a 2013 call to arms, or fatwa, by Iraq’s most venerable Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, to resist the IS threat.
These days, a number of hashd al-shaabi members have traded their military fatigues for civilian suits and are vying for seats in the new parliament.
Dressed in a black suit and pristine white, open-collared shirt, Karim al-Nouri, a former hashd al-shaabi fighter-turned-candidate, is a perfect example of Iraq’s emerging new political class, members of which are using their successes on the battlefield to capitalize on the campaign trail.
“After the IS group, we will fight corruption. There are corrupt people in the government and we must face them,” explained Nouri.
It’s a message that resonates with Mohsen Nasr Mohammed, a former hashd al-shaabi fighter and Nouri supporter.“We wish that he wins. He is a hero on the battlefield, we wish that he will be a hero in parliament”.
Critics accuse the militias of exploiting their military power for political gains and of deepening sectarian divisions.
Nouri, however, disagrees. “We are not sectarian. We represent the country, we defended the country, if the person who defends the country is sectarian, well, then hello to sectarianism.”
A proxy battlefield?
The leader of Nouri’s Conquest list is Hadi al-Amiri, a 63-year-old former leader of the Badr Brigade, a powerful Shiite opposition force against the former Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein. A fluent Farsi speaker, Amiri lived in exile in neighbouring Iran for two decades during Saddam’s reign.
His close ties to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have raised fears among Iraqis that their country could turn into a proxy battlefield in Washington’s escalating campaign against Tehran.
While US troops in Iraq and the Iran-backed hashd al-shaabi cooperated in the joint fight against the IS group, the defeat of the jihadist group in the battlefield as well as US President Donald Trump’s recent pullout of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal have escalated concerns of Iranian meddling in Iraq.
Amiri, along with Prime Minister Abadi and former Iraqi PM Maliki are among the top three contenders for the Iraqi premiership, which is reserved for a Shiite.
Mosul still in ruins
The winner of Saturday’s elections will have the daunting task of rebuilding Iraq after the devastating fight against the hardline Sunni jihadist group.
Months after the defeat of the IS group, Mosul’s historic old city still lies in ruins. Banners and posters of candidates flutter on pockmarked walls and equipment clearing the debris on city streets. On the campaign trail, politicians financing parts of the clean-up are quick to claim credit for the reconstruction effort.
But they have largely failed to win over voters like Jaralla Marala Hayawi, a Mosul resident who is paying for the reconstruction of his shop from his own pocket. "My house was destroyed,” explains an agitated Hayawi. “My shop here was also destroyed, but we haven't been compensated. Candidates come and distribute flour and water. But you can't live from that. Who can I vote for, tell me, who? Give me one person who will actually work for us. We won't benefit at all."
Over 900 candidates are contesting the 34 seats for this province in parliament. But many voters see the electoral race as nothing more than a scramble for power.
Displaced Iraqis afraid to return home
Around 2 million Iraqis who fled the latest war remain displaced, many in temporary camps like the Hasansham camp in Iraqi Kurdistan. Outside the sprawling camp, election posters promise displaced Iraqis a better future. Inside though, hopelessness and cynicism reign.
Abdulrahman Jabbar fled the predominantly Yazidi area of Sinjar with his family. Retaliatory attacks against Sunnis like him have made returning home impossible.
"Yazidi militia have killed some Arab families. The IS group has created a division between the communities in Sinjar. Neither Arabs nor Kurds have been able to return up until now," said Jabbar.
Whoever wins the May 12 elections will face an enormous challenge rebuilding and reuniting a nation that remains deeply scarred by the IS group campaign in a tinderbox region that is fast turning into a proxy battlefield for regional powers.