Iraq Elections: With ISIS in Rearview, Iran Lies Ahead

Photo: Karim Kadim/AP

Bottom Line: On paper, Iraq’s democratic electoral system promises rare, fair representation in a region where politics is dominated by monarchies and authoritarian regimes. But in reality, the country’s political system has been hamstrung by inefficiencies and gridlocks that have often segregated, rather than united, the Iraqi populace. As Iraqis work to heal the wounds they suffered at the hands of ISIS, the fragile state of affairs in Iraq remains susceptible to deep sectarian tensions, rising Iranian influence, and an emboldened Kurdish independence movement. All the while, the Iraqi people face monumental decisions in the looming May parliamentary elections when they will chart their country’s future trajectory.

Background: Now that Iraq has been liberated from ISIS’ wrath, the Iraqi government can turn its attention towards resettling the vast number of refugees and displaced persons and rebuilding its fractured country.

  • On Dec. 9, Iraqi Prime Minister Hader al-Abadi declared victory over ISIS after the group was ousted from its strongholds in the country’s northwest. “Our forces fully control the Iraqi-Syrian border, and thus we can announce the end of the war against Daesh [ISIS],” Abadi said at the time.
  • Iraqi demographics are primarily split between Arabs, which comprise between 75 and 80 percent of the population, and Kurds, which represent the remaining 15 to 20 percent, according to the most recent estimates provided by CIA World Factbook. Religiously, between 55 and 60 percent of Iraqi citizens are Shia Muslims, while 40 percent practice Sunni Islam. Divisions along ethnic and religious lines, primarily the marginalization of Iraqi Sunnis by dominant Shia political parties and militias, have often been credited as a key factor that helped facilitate the initial rise of ISIS as a Sunni extremist group.
  • In late December, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees released figures stating that although more than 2.84 million displaced Iraqis have returned home, another estimated 2.78 million people remain displaced inside Iraq while more than 260,000 Iraqi refugees are hosted by neighboring countries in the region.
  • Next month, Kuwait is expected to host an international conference to discuss reconstruction efforts for Iraq. This week, Kuwait’s state-run Kuwait News Agency (KUNA), quoted secretary general of the Iraqi cabinet, Mahdi al-Allaq, as estimating that Iraq requires $100 billion for its reconstruction projects.
  • Questions linger over the effectiveness of stability operations and reconstruction efforts that have already begun throughout Iraq. Although the government maintains a certain degree of oversight in the reconquered territories, tensions between ethnic and religious groups remains a pressure cooker that could suddenly explode.
  • Iraq’s constitution was supposed to enshrine fairness by divvying up power among the different ethnic groups – a parliamentary democracy with a federal system of government. Former Ambassador of Iraq to the United States Lukman Faily wrote in The Cipher Brief that it didn’t quite work that way: “The Iraqi constitution of 2005 and its very definition of the state has failed to empower its stakeholders or serve as an adjudicator of disputes within the state of Iraq. This most recent crisis (with the Kurdish referendum) is a golden opportunity to discuss the key structural fault-lines that have been either ignored or wrongly implemented. These fault-lines relate to decentralization, revenue sharing, the role of religion and other important identity and governance challenges.”

Lt. Gen. (ret.) Guy C. Swan III, former Chief of Staff & Director of Operations, Multi-National Force-Iraq, Operation Iraqi Freedom

“The Iraqi government is working to stabilize areas of northern and western Iraq dominated for several years by ISIS. It is estimated that over 3 million Iraqis were displaced during this period so the major stabilization effort will be to get as many displaced persons back to their homes. The challenge will be the infrastructure destruction caused by the recent fighting, especially in the Old City of Mosul and surrounding area, which is estimated to cost over $1 billion dollars to repair. At the same time, the old flashpoints between Iraqi government forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga in Nineveh province and most notably around Kirkuk remain volatile. So far an uneasy peace is holding, but these historic hostilities will slow the stabilization effort.”

Lukman Faily, former Iraqi Ambassador to the United States

“If you cut it in a binary way, then everyone wants democracy. But if you look at the impact of collective governing, it has led to difficulties with decisions and too much engagement with the process rather than with the end of that process.”

Issue: The Iraqi government faces significant pressure from a strong Iranian presence in the country, particularly in Baghdad and the Shia dominated south. As part of its regional hegemonic objectives, Iran aims to fold the Baghdad government into its Shia crescent that stretches from northern Yemen all the way through Iraq, Syria and southern Lebanon.

  • Since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iran has steadily increased its influence in Baghdad. Tehran strongly supported former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki who, along with his Shia-led government, imposed sectarian and authoritarian policies over Iraq’s Sunni and Kurdish minorities during his tenure from 2006-2014. Maliki’s refusal to reach a political accord with the Sunnis, a system of governance widely acknowledged as corrupt, and heavy-handed military repression of the Sunni minority have been listed among the main causes that ultimately led to the rise of ISIS.
  • Iranian-aligned Shia militias, comprised of more than 60,000 troops, played an important role in ousting ISIS from Iraq. Several of these groups – including the Badr Organization, the Hezbollah Brigades, the Martyrs of Sayyid Brigades, Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), and Jund al-Imam – formed a unified front known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). Although the Iraqi government now provides funding and has nominal control of the PMF, the militias maintain close ties to top Iranian commanders – most notoriously Qasem Souleimani, who heads Iran’s elite Quds Force.

Lt. Gen. (ret.) Guy C. Swan III, former Chief of Staff & Director of Operations, Multi-National Force-Iraq, Operation Iraqi Freedom

“Iran will always have an influential role in Iraq. However, the level of influence and what form it takes going forward will be the issue. The U.S. and other coalition partners will have to balance that influence to enable Iraq to sustain a level of independence as it looks to the post-ISIS period. The Iraqi government reluctantly accommodated the Iranians, especially the Shia-dominated Popular Mobilization Fronts (PMFs), in order to defeat ISIS. The continued presence of these forces must be dealt with either through integration into Iraqi government forces or by disbanding.”

James Jeffrey, former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq and Turkey

“It’s Iran’s firm intention to lock Iraq into its growing regional empire as a second Lebanon by using the same Hezbollah-like tactics and relying on local surrogates more loyal to Iran than Baghdad to undermine an independent Iraqi State. If this occurs, the impact on the United States’ position in the region would be devastating. In essence, it could put the lie to Trump’s ‘anti-Iran’ policy by turning a country with two-thirds of Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves and the second largest oil production in the region – as well as a population larger than that of Saudi Arabia’s – over to “the enemy” after the U.S. intervened repeatedly to save it from Saddam Hussein, pro-Iranian militias, al Qaeda and of course ISIS.”

Issue: During the battle against ISIS, the Kurdish independence movement gained momentum as Kurdish Peshmerga forces put up a fierce resistance to prevent ISIS’ expansion. A Kurdish referendum for independence was soundly rejected by the international community and reworking the parameters governing the region may prove challenging for a new Iraqi parliament.

  • Kurdish forces were a stalwart in the battle against ISIS, preventing the group from advancing into Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, and even expanded its control to the oil-rich city of Kirkuk located in northeastern Iraq.
  • Iraqi Kurdistan currently houses more than 1.4 million displaced Iraqi and Syrian citizens, according to figures published by the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) Joint Crisis Coordination Centre (JCC) in December.
  • In a referendum held by the KRG at the end of September in three provinces across Iraqi Kurdistan, 92 percent of the 3.3 million voters supported independence and creation of a Kurdish state.
  • Following the vote, the U.S. State Department said it was “deeply disappointed that the Kurdistan Regional Government decided to conduct…a unilateral referendum on independence, including in areas outside of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region…The United States supports a united, federal, democratic and prosperous Iraq and will continue to seek opportunities to assist Iraqis to fulfill their aspirations within the framework of the constitution.”
  • Three weeks after the vote, the Iraqi army swept into Kirkuk – which had been won back from ISIS by Kurdish Peshmerga – driving the Peshmerga out and also retaking its contested oil fields. The U.S. did not protest, leading Iraq watchers to conclude that the U.S. was sending a signal to the Kurdish leader who spearheaded the referendum, Massoud Barzani, that he’d overstepped his bounds and lost crucial support from the U.S. and others – wasting the valuable political capital the KRG had accrued in helping the government of Iraq and the international coalition defeat ISIS.

Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, Representative of the Kurdistan Regional Government to the United States

“The KRG has always maintained that the Iraqi constitution is the guarantor of the unity, stability and prosperity of Iraq. The constitution was welcomed in a referendum across Iraq in 2005 and the people of Kurdistan looked forward to a new era when Iraqis of all faiths, sects and ethnicities would be equal citizens, when the marginalization of one group or other would be a thing of the past. Unfortunately, over the next decade we saw rampant violations of the constitution – corruption, and a deepening of sectarianism which eventually led to ISIS and our call for a referendum on independence. Today, Baghdad is using that referendum as a pretext to impose an economic blockade on our people, ban international flights and threaten us militarily. All while we continue to fight pockets of ISIS and we shelter over 1.6 million displaced Iraqi and Syrian refugees, which itself has had a devastating effect on our economy and public services like healthcare and electricity. The Iraqi Constitution remains in place. Dialogue on the basis of the Constitution is the way forward. We welcome serious face-to-face talks to resolve the myriad problems facing Iraq and to open a new chapter for our country.”

Norman Ricklefs, former Senior Advisor to the Secretary General at the Iraqi Ministry of Defense & to the Iraqi Minister of Interior

“The dream of an independent Kurdistan has been reset to the pre-2003 situation in my view, and it will take many years (if ever) for the Iraqi Kurds to come as close to independence as the de facto independence they enjoyed prior to the referendum.”

Issue: It also remains unclear if the Iraqi government has taken the necessary steps to prevent the re-emergence of the conditions that gave rise to ISIS in the first place. Sectarian divisions remain contentious throughout the country, sparked by fears that the Iranian-backed PMFs could seek revenge on Sunni populations accused of supporting ISIS.

Emile Nakhleh, former Director of the CIA’s Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program

“The Iraqi government has not taken serious steps to address the conditions that gave rise to ISIS in the first place. The government has yet to address the systemic discrimination against Iraqi Sunnis. Nor has the government curbed the extralegal and invariably illegal actions—including killings, pillaging, and thuggery – by Shia militias against Sunni neighborhoods, especially in areas that previously supported ISIS. The tons of rubble that clog the narrow streets in Mosul, Ramadi, and other Sunni communities have yet to be removed. The anger and frustration that permeate Sunni neighborhoods is being directed against the government’s slow response to the destruction, and to some degree against the United States and other members of the coalition that defeated ISIS. All of which, of course, creates an environment conducive for recruitment, radicalization, and terrorism.”

Norman Ricklefs, former Senior Advisor to the Secretary General at the Iraqi Ministry of Defense & to the Iraqi Minister of Interior

“The conditions on the ground now are fundamentally different. After a long and brutal campaign, the liberated provinces are controlled by a combination of forces – local tribal militias, provincial police forces, and Iraqi military – that are all deeply opposed to ISIS (even if they are often in competition with each other). They now, arguably for the first time since 2003, control the ground. This is an entirely new dynamic, and will prevent the return of ISIS in the near term.”

James Jeffrey, former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq and Turkey

“Encouraged and advised by the U.S. and others, the government of Iraq says all the right things and gives nice speeches. But its performance, understandably, is deeply flawed. What will make a difference is if Abadi can ensure the security forces, especially quasi-official Shia militias, do not start once again oppressing liberated Sunni communities.”

Response: As the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS mission winds down, the Trump administration has reiterated its support for a unified and democratic Iraq, but has also remained cautious about withdrawing U.S. forces on the ground. One priority for the current administration is to help prevent the Iraqi government from falling into the sphere of Iranian influence.

  • During the Obama administration, the U.S. gradually decreased its military presence in Iraq, although it briefly halted its drawdown during the fight against ISIS. According to the U.S. Department of Defense’s most recent quarterly report published in September 2017, the U.S. has approximately 7,400 troops stationed in Iraq.
  • In October, Prime Minister Abadi said he would not allow Iraq to evolve into a battleground between the U.S. and Iran. “We would like to work with you, both of you,” Abadi told The Washington Post. “But please don’t bring your trouble inside Iraq. You can sort it anywhere else.”
  • The National Security Strategy released by the White House in December, prioritized the strengthening of “our long-term strategic partnership with Iraq as an independent state.”

Lukman Faily, former Iraqi Ambassador to the United States

“Iraq has a myriad of challenges. There are issues with the government and how democratic and representative it is, with the economy, with terrorism, and with minorities. Where the U.S. can help is in alleviating the pain and pressure that is on the government due to some of these factors. Offering support – whether it’s security or financial or even with respect to political support for Iraq’s relationship with its neighbors including Saudi Arabia – is essential to help alleviate some of the pressure on the government so that it can address domestic issues. But with respect to democracy and power sharing, the U.S. can’t help a lot in that aspect. There are too many stakeholders in Iraq; no single party is dominant enough to be a key partner to the U.S. moving forward.”

Anticipation: Iraq’s recent history and deep sectarian fractures paint a difficult roadmap for the government in Baghdad. Abadi is now charged with revamping the Iraqi military and integrating the different elements that disjointedly fought ISIS into one cohesive, national military. The country’s upcoming elections in May could serve as an important benchmark for the Iraqi government to heed the voices of the Iraq population and embark on a mission of building towards the future.

Norman Ricklefs, former Senior Advisor to the Secretary General at the Iraqi Ministry of Defense & to the Iraqi Minister of Interior

“The 2018 election will probably result in a parliament without any clear victor and with the traditional political blocs being even more divided than in the past. Abadi will likely gain a plurality, though not a majority, and will be supported by the Shi’ite religious hierarchy, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, the United States and Britain. But the possibility of a protracted period of post-election government formation and parliamentary maneuvering will provide an opening for Maliki, with the support of Iran, to use his great wealth and wide political support base to attempt to prevent another Abadi government; unless Maliki and Abadi can forge some kind of rapprochement. Abadi has grown into a competent politician, and has genuine voter support as well as international support, but the end result is far from assured.”

Emile Nakhleh, former Director of the CIA’s Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program

“The next elections will likely be determined by at least three factors: emerging coalitions among the Shia parties and the changing influence of the Da’wa party; Iran’s extensive role in the elections and interest in a particular party or leader; and the reconstruction of the country in the post-ISIS era. Neighboring Sunni states, especially Saudi Arabia, might show an interest in the elections but their involvement will be minimal compared to Iran’s role. Of course, the other unknown factor, or wild card, will be whether another Gulf war breaks out. If Iran decides to see a new and more inclusive leader take the helm, then al-Abadi would be replaced, which also could result in the Da’wa party losing much of its influence.”

Bennett Seftel is director of analysis at The Cipher Brief. Follow him on Twitter @BennettSeftel.


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One Reply to “Iraq Elections: With ISIS in Rearview, Iran Lies Ahead”
  1. Going on 15 years, like Afghanistan, how much longer will this take place? Obviously, who ever is calling the shots, hasn’t learned its lessons, right from the start. The one issue that’s out front: the cost these adventures have thrust upon the treasury of the U.S.A. How many more years will this go on?