Emerging from the chaos of ISIS, Baghdad’s bad boy triumphs

Once thought a failed state, Iraq has emerged from the chaos of ISIS to hold successful elections.

Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr speaks in Najaf, Iraq May 17, 2018 (photo credit: REUTERS/ALAA AL-MARJANI)
Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr speaks in Najaf, Iraq May 17, 2018
In November 2015 I drove into the low hills that separate the city of Kirkuk from Hawija in northern Iraq. We stopped at a village inhabited by a small religious minority called Kakei. A man in olive-drab camouflage and a massive mustache had pulled over our SUV.
The driver, a Kurdish Peshmerga or soldier, said we were on the way to the local general’s headquarters. The checkpoint guard waved us on, and the SUV bobbed along the badly paved road.
The battle against ISIS that November had gone on for more than a year in Iraq and showed no signs of ending. Around eight million people were living under ISIS control in 2015, according to UN estimates, and more than 20,000 foreign fighters from 80 countries were manning its front lines, which stretched for thousands of miles across Iraq and Syria. In April 2015 the Iraqi Army and Shi’ite militias had liberated Tikrit from the extremists. The Iraqi security forces were also battling to retake Ramadi, next to Baghdad.
“There is no Iraq, it’s finished,” was the refrain in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq that year.
Driving up to the front line, passing the ruined villages from the fighting, the parched canals that once flooded the plains around Kirkuk, the oil fires in the distance, it was hard to imagine how Iraq’s central government would return to control these areas.
John Bolton, who is now the US national security adviser, wrote in November 2015 in The New York Times that “Iraq and Syria as we have known them are gone.” He argued that “the best alternative to the Islamic State in northeastern Syria and western Iraq is a new, independent Sunni state.”
Two and a half years after Bolton presented his “Sunnistan” to readers, and after I huddled in trenches near Hawija, Iraq has returned. There is no “Sunnistan,” and ISIS is defeated.
According to the US-led coalition, ISIS has lost 98% of its territory. In Iraq that means it has been driven from the cities and back into the rural caves and farms it came from. Every week brings new clashes with the remnants of ISIS. But concerns that it was bubbling up a new insurgency have not been borne out.
Emblematic of the failure of ISIS to reemerge after being driven from Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul in June 2017 is the fact that it was not able to intimidate voters during Iraq’s May 12 elections.
THE IRAQI elections this year were a sign of hope in a country that has not really known peace for the last four decades. It is often forgotten that Iraqis have been at war since the 1980s.
The war that began in September 1980 between Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Islamic revolutionary Iran still underpins Iraq’s politics today. Before launching his assault on Iran, Saddam ordered the execution of the Shi’ite Islamic Dawa Party leader Ayatollah Sayyid Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr. He was the father-in-law of Muqtada al-Sadr, whose party came in first in the elections this year.
The war years of the 1980s were formative for other reasons. Young Iraqi officers who fought in them or grew up during them remember the years of Iraqi military power and scientific progress. Some of them also engaged in massive human rights abuses, such as the genocide against Kurds in the Anfal campaign of the 1980s. It was this genocide that made many Kurds feel they could not be part of Iraq.
For Shi’ites in Iraq, the war years were traumatizing, yet some of the current Shi’ite leaders of Iraq today fought alongside the Iranians in the war. Hadi al-Amiri, whose “Fateh” coalition came in second in the May elections, had lived in Iran for two decades, where his Badr Brigade had helped Iran against Saddam.
When US forces arrived in Baghdad in 2003, they pulled down the Saddam statue and waited to see what would arise in its place. Over subsequent elections in 2005, 2010, 2014 and 2018, Iraqi politics has become increasingly sectarian, divided along religious and ethnic lines.
The top six vote-getters this year were Sadr’s Sairoon, Amiri’s Fateh, Haider al-Abadi’s Victory Alliance, Nuri al-Maliki’s State of Law Coalition, Nechirvan Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party and Ayad Allawi’s Wataniya list. Except for Allawi, who espouses a kind of secular politics, all the other parties are basically sectarian.
Iraqi supporters of Sairun list celebrate after the closing of ballot boxes during the parliamentary election in Sadr city district of Baghdad, Iraq May 12, 2018 (Reuters)Iraqi supporters of Sairun list celebrate after the closing of ballot boxes during the parliamentary election in Sadr city district of Baghdad, Iraq May 12, 2018 (Reuters)
Maliki and Abadi are both members of the Shi’ite Dawa Party and both lived in exile until 2003. Sadr is a religious Shi’ite cleric. Amiri, as discussed above, earned his spurs in Iran, opposing Saddam. So one could conclude that the top-four winners of the Iraqi election this year all share a similar background, even if their current positions are more complex. The last person on the list in the top parties in Iraq is the Kurdish party of Barzani. Like the Shi’ites, it also earned its reputation opposing Saddam.
Although Iraqi democracy is divided so deeply along sectarian lines, it is a very vibrant democracy. In Mosul, scene of some of the most brutal fighting against ISIS, where much of the western part of the city lies in ruins, election flags festooned highways, cafés, the university and the shells of houses in the city.
Six thousand seven hundred candidates ran for 329 seats from 87 parties. A quarter of the seats were reserved for women, so even Shi’ite religious parties had to field numerous women candidates, and it was not unusual in Iraq to see women’s faces on election posters. One woman even had two posters printed up, one in a hijab, one with her hair flowing, for different voting sectors. Nine seats in parliament were reserved for minorities, including Christians and Yazidis, both of whose groups had been targeted for genocide and ethnic cleansing by ISIS.
On election day, around 44% of the 18 million eligible voters came to the polls. This low turnout showed that even though it was a vibrant election, many didn’t see much to vote for.
Oddly, considering that the war on ISIS was led by a Shi’ite prime minister and Baghdad had been saved by the calling up of 100,000 Shi’ite militias in 2014, Shi’ite areas suffered the largest percentage drops in turnout in 2018 compared to 2014. In Najaf and Karbala, the Shi’ite holy heartland, 30% fewer turned out.
In Baghdad almost a million fewer voters went to the polls. In Sunni areas, devastated by four years of occupation and war with ISIS, the turnout was similar to 2014. In Anbar province 30,000 more people went to the polls, and in Nineveh, where Mosul is located, the decline was only 4%.
MOQTADA AL-SADR won the largest number of seats in Iraq’s parliament (Reuters)MOQTADA AL-SADR won the largest number of seats in Iraq’s parliament (Reuters)
Some of the figures seem almost impossible to understand, considering that large parts of Nineveh were devastated by war. For instance, in the Sinjar region, more than 300,000 Yazidis who once lived there are now in IDP camps in Dohuk, and many of them were unable to vote. In West Mosul, where bodies are still being pulled from the rubble – 2,838 since Mosul was retaken – the voters waltzed to the polls seemingly without problems.
Iraq also experimented with new voter machines in its recent elections. This led to accusations of fraud, especially in the Kurdish region.
In Sulaymaniyah, the Kurdish region’s second largest city, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan is the political party that has run the city for decades. The Talabani family, which plays a leading role in the PUK, are the main players in elections. In the 1990s the Kurdish region was so divided that the PUK and KDP fought a brief civil war. The Barzani and Talabani families patched things up and ran on a joint list in the 2005 elections. But they drifted apart afterward.
The war on ISIS united the Kurds against a common enemy, but 2017 brought more controversy, as the KDP encouraged the region to hold an independence referendum. The PUK and most other smaller Kurdish parties signed on for the referendum, and 2.8 million voted for independence in September 2017.
But the referendum brought instability. The Americans and the other Western powers opposed the Kurds breaking off from Iraq. Instead, the Kurds were expected to toe the line and be part of unified Iraq. Western policy-makers saw the Kurds as a pro-Western element in Iraq as a counterbalance to the increasing Iranification of political parties in Baghdad. If the Kurds were to leave Iraq, it would truly become Sunnistan and Shiastan, breaking apart as Bolton once thought it would.
So, in order for Iraq to be strong, the Kurds have to be a bit weaker, and their autonomous government should not rock the boat. At least that’s what the old policy elites in Washington thought.
For average Kurds the problems were not just about independence and Baghdad’s issues, but about receiving salaries. During the war on ISIS the Kurdistan Regional Government paid salaries late to the hundreds of thousands of state employees because it claimed the war was stretching the budget. With the war over, the civil servants wanted to get back to a normal life. There was also anger at other issues, such as corruption and nepotism. Strikes and protests rocked the Kurdish region in December and into January.
But by the time elections came around in May, things seemed to have returned to normal. Baghdad, which had attempted to punish the KRG by closing its international airports, walked back its sanctions. In the end, around 2.2 million Kurds voted in Iraq’s elections, fewer than had voted for independence. The lower turnout illustrated that they, too, were disillusioned. But they chose traditional parties, the KDP and PUK. This led the smaller Kurdish parties to scream “fraud” and even seek a meeting with the US anti- ISIS envoy, Brett McGurk, after the elections.
In Kirkuk, too, there were allegations of fraud by the Arab and Turkmans in the city. Kirkuk saw a 15% decline in turnout, but its Turkman vote was similar to 2014. The main Kurdish party in Kirkuk lost almost 30,000 votes, while the Arab party gained votes.
In the end the Iraqi government didn’t seem interested in recounts in Sulaymaniyah or Kirkuk. Once you start doing recounts, it never ends, as the US found out during the George W. Bush election.
And Iraq didn’t want controversies or fighting in the streets over voting machines. If just one station was found to have a discrepancy between what the hi-tech machines said the vote was, versus who voted for what, it might call into question the vote throughout the country.
THE PROBLEM Iraq faced after the elections was that the man who was supposed to win did not win. That is probably the greatest evidence that there could not be fraud in the elections, because when there is fraud the people who are supposed to win, win. The man who was supposed to win was Abadi, the great hope of Iraq, the defeater of ISIS, slayer of dragons.
Abadi was plucked from relative obscurity to lead Iraq in the dark days of August 2014, when ISIS was at the gates of Baghdad. Short, stocky, his feet seem to barely reach the floor in meetings, and the large chairs that Iraqi politicians like to sit in seem about to swallow his small stature. He became the West’s favorite Iraqi leader.
Abadi reached out to the Saudis at the behest of the Americans, and when his army had defeated ISIS, he did a victory lap of neighboring countries. He also engineered a tacit alliance with both Turkey and Iran to oppose Kurdish independence moves. Having stymied the Kurdish ambitions, he also attracted billions in investment from the international community to rebuild Iraq. He posed with members of his numerous army units, the Federal Police, the elite Counter Terrorism Service, and others. He worked closely with the US-led coalition and inaugurated a new training program for air-force cadets in Iraq in 2018.
On the eve of the elections Abadi went up to Mosul Dam, which ISIS once held, and he traveled around Iraq, meeting local Sunni sheikhs and posing with masses of barrel-chested advisers, as though he were destined for greatness.
But on election night Abadi must have had a moment like Carlos Salinas, Mexico’s former president, had in 1988. In that year a computer system tabulating votes mysteriously crashed when it showed the opposition might win. The ballots were bundled up, hidden away, and burned several years later. On election night, Abadi must have been apoplectic, seeing his rival Sadr riding to victory.
Abadi had named his own list in the elections “Victory,” and he had left behind Maliki, whose party he had once been a member of, to run on his own. But the night brought failure. His “Victory” list came in third. The Shi’ite militia list led by Amiri came in second. And Sadr, the bad boy of Iraq’s politics for the last 15 years, came in first.
Sadr, whose father and relatives were murdered by Saddam, had bedeviled Iraq since the Americans arrived in 2003. A leader of the Shi’ite poor, he became a militia leader and sent his acolytes to fight the Americans in 2004. Over the years he grew apart from his initial Iranian backers and became a fierce nationalist. In April 2016 he sent his followers to take over the Green Zone in Baghdad in massive protests.
He’s never been keen on major foreign policy decisions. He doesn’t think the Americans should be in Iraq, and wants Iran’s tentacles pulled off Baghdad. US diplomats once called his voters a “rabble” and his followers “gangs.” But the gangs and the rabble came out to vote on May 12, perhaps sensing that Sadr’s time had come, after Iraq had tried so many other things.
Abadi lost in May perhaps because he wasn’t much of a leader, or because countries that have fought wars for years sometimes ditch the captain. Winston Churchill was thrown out by voters in 1945. Abadi is no Churchill, so it’s understandable.
However, Abadi may remain in power in Iraq as part of a coalition agreement, with some combination of Sadr, Amiri and the Kurds. He will be weakened. The Kurds will not be greatly strengthened by the chaotic election. The Sunni Arabs, who Bolton once thought would form their own state, have very few seats in the parliament.
So the future of Iraq after the elections will be mundane, as the country plods along and tries to craft itself in a post-ISIS era. For foreign diplomats the results of the elections were unexpected. But for Iraq they are a sign that democracy can work, despite wars and extremism, Iranian influence, sectarian divides and everything else.
George W. Bush, who ordered the Iraq invasion, was widely condemned for it years later, with some arguing he brought disaster not only on Iraq but instability to the whole of the Middle East.
Perhaps, though, Iraq’s democracy is a good sign after ISIS. Whatever the country’s myriad problems, it held a successful vote without civil strife and has a chance to keep building its institutions. The question is if that will come under the prying eyes of Sadr, and whether he will take on a patrician-like role or return to his old ways.
What do Iraq’s elections mean for Israel?
Iraq’s May 2018 elections shocked some by bringing to the fore Muqtada al-Sadr, the passionate cleric who once fought the US in 2004. Sadr has been a critic of Israel, but he has been no more critical than other members of Iraq’s leading Shi’ite parties. Sadr is not as close to Iran as Hadi al-Amiri’s Fateh list or Nuri al-Maliki’s State of Law Coalition.
It was clear to Jerusalem that no matter who would win in the Iraqi elections, the country would be run by some Shi’ite party, and Iran would have its influence. The Hashd al-Shaabi coalition of Shi’ite militias that helped defeat ISIS is not a permanent part of the Iraqi Security Forces. For Israel, the concern is much larger than the elections; it is the degree to which official parts of the Iraqi government work directly with Tehran and help Iran form a land corridor via Iraq to Syria and Lebanon. That corridor passes next to the Golan and threatens Israel.
The problem for Israel is that whoever wins in Baghdad will end up working with the US, which has sunk billions into Iraq, and whose coalition is training the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Air Force. The US doesn’t want to leave Iraq again, as it did in 2011, and it wants to use Iraq to continue to supply its forces in Syria.
For Israel, the ideal would be to see the US working more closely with the Kurdish region in Iraq and see Kurds playing more of a role in Baghdad.
There is another added twist that shows Sadr might provide stability in the region and aid the anti-Iran camp. Evidence for this comes from Sadr’s trip to Saudi Arabia last year. If Sadr and the Saudis and Kurds confront Iran’s influence in Iraq, that would be welcomed by Jerusalem, because it views Iran as the major threat to the region.
Iraq’s politics is never a simple story. There may be anti-Iran elements, but they work closely with elements that are close to Iran. Iran doesn’t “control” Iraq, it uses its influence quietly and wisely. So any notion that the elections represent some game changer is mistaken. The elections basically are another seal of approval for widespread Shi’ite power in Iraq.
A stable post-election Iraq would be welcomed by Israel, as long as Iran does not gain in influence. Until the final coalition is known, it will not be clear whether Iran’s allies have pulled something off, or Sadr has.