Who is waking Iraq’s beasts?


Since the elections last month, recent events in Iraq included a brutal round of sectarian violence in Diyala, a deadly shooting by security forces at pro-Iranian demonstrators, and an attempt to assassinate the Prime Minister. This worrisome escalation will push an already fragile Iraq into the abyss of “forever violence” unless a sustained diplomatic engagement is initiated sooner rather than later.

The outcome of Iraq’s October 10th elections is now a point of discord among heavy-weight Iraqi political groups, mostly Shias. Unlike other countries where the relevant constitutional and judicial bodies constructively handle post-election complaints, such a fundamental disagreement over the results of an election is a dangerous development in Iraq. Most of the population already distrusts the system and has access to weapons; a dangerous combination when the country is being manipulated as part of a regional power competition.

Since 2003, Shia political groups managed – often with the help of Iran – to avoid a completely overt confrontation during the process of selecting a prime minister in the aftermath of a general election. Although the picture in 2021 does not look significantly different, there are new elements to consider.

First of all, the sweeping victory of Muqtada Al-Sadr’s candidates is shaking up intra-Shia power dynamics. While the biggest losers are Iranian-backed armed groups (part of the broader Popular Mobilization Forces or PMF), the astonishing performance of former prime minister – and pro-Iran Nouri Al-Maliki’s in the 2021 vote is a lifesaver to Iran. Now, Shia political and armed groups are pitted against each other. If the current standoff persists, this could lead to large-scale violence in Central and Southern Iraq. Although unlikely, such a turn of events has the potential to drag Iraq into a long and intensely violent conflict.

The recent deadly shooting by security forces during demonstrations of PMF supporters is a red line that no prime minister would want to cross. Whether this was ordered deliberately by Prime Minister Al-Kadhimi’s office, or it stems from an isolated decision by a zealous military commander on the ground, Iran would never let such an incident go without consequences. On top of their electoral losses, such a provocation is grounds enough for Iran to deal with it as an existential threat and therefore justifies eliminating – physically or politically – those responsible for the incident.

In a context of weak law enforcement, distrust in state institutions, government-affiliated armed groups and other undermining factors of the security situation, such an endeavor will very likely be too violent and self-destructive to the Shias themselves as well as to Iraq. Last but not least, had the attempt to assassinate Prime Minister Al-Kadhimi been successful, this would have propelled Iraq’s Shias into an atrocious cycle of violence.

While Iraq’s Shias are in political tatters, ISIS continues to ramp up its operations in some parts of the country. The terrorist attack on Al-Rashad village a few weeks ago and the almost immediate retaliatory raid by Shia militants against Sunni families left dozens of casualties in both communities. The brutality of both the ISIS attack and the revenge operation is reminiscent of the days of more intense sectarian violence between 2006 and 2008 and of ISIS’ sweeping takeover of Northern Iraq in 2014. The perpetrators of Al-Rashad’s attack and their sponsors, nostalgic of “Ad-Dhari/Ad-Duri” mishmash, seem to be determined to take Iraq back in time. Obviously, the sustained pattern of such attacks and the expected retaliation by the victims’ tribes and armed groups could easily reverse the gains made in the last few years in stabilizing the formerly ISIS-held areas of Iraq.

The recent election and the somehow reconstituted Sunni political landscape, which is dominated by Speaker Halboussi and Khamees Al-Khanjar, indicate that Iraq’s Sunnis don’t feel politically as disenfranchised as they did between 2003 and 2014. However, these same Sunni communities have harbored strong grievances because of the coercive and extortionary behavior of individuals and armed groups perceived to be part of the Iranian ecosystem in Iraq. Ignoring these grievances, and the precarious economic and social situation, contribute to an environment conducive to further recruitment and enticement of young Iraqis by ISIS & Co.

The Shia political implosion and the surge in ISIS operations are happening at a time when the international community seems to be giving less attention and resources to Iraq. Such a disinvestment will very likely affect the means of the “Global Coalition against Daesh”, whose work is more important now than ever. Amongst the Shia parties, the main turf now is between former prime minister Maliki and Muqtada Al-Sadr; neither of whom are secular nor politically friendly to the West.

The other political parties or movements known to cultivate cordial relationships with Western countries and their allies in the region came out of the October elections extremely weakened. This gives a flavor of how the geopolitics will play out in Iraq in the long term, should the current deterioration continue. The Shia scene will be dominated by anti-Western forces and the Sunni community will be once again prone to instrumentalization by terrorist groups. Iran and Turkey will use Iraq to further their regional agendas while avoiding a direct confrontation. Both countries care less about stability and prosperity in Iraq; actually, preferring more division, economic dependence, and a weak government in Baghdad.

The era of massive international campaigns and thousands of boots on the ground is certainly over. However, this is not the only way to reverse Iraq’s downfall. Over the last twenty years, some Iraqis, from all walks of life, showed a strong dedication to work for the stability of their country. Re-forming a core body of allies in the Kurdistan region and federal Iraq is not impossible, and soft power tools to counter Iran’s influence and halt the surge of ISIS outbreaks have been systematically underused. A sustained diplomatic engagement and commitment to help Iraq will not only save one country from the claws of regional powers and extremism but will certainly dissuade the anti-Western forces from overly building on the premise that the values of social liberalism, economic freedom, human rights and dignity have been defeated.