Thursday, May 10, 2018

BAGHDAD — It’s the great strategic irony of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein: a military operation designed to remove a key U.S. enemy has not only empowered the country’s Shiite majority but also given another U.S. foe, Iran, a major political foothold in a traditional Arab power in the region.

But as Iraqis prepare for critical but uncertain national elections on Saturday, there are signs that Iraq’s Shiite clerics and Iran’s hard-line Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders may not be happy with the results, while archrival Saudi Arabia will be able to claim newfound influence.

Political splits inside Iraq’s Shiite community, which constitutes about 65 percent of the population, have created an opening for Saudi-backed candidates to contest politicians with ties to Iran.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, a Shiite who has relied on critical support from minority Sunni voters to bolster his coalition, is running for another term against a slate of challengers who are playing far more to Shiite grievances and sectarian appeals.

His Victory Alliance is the only coalition running candidates in all 18 Iraqi provinces, and he has campaigned extensively in the Sunni heartland.

Saudi Arabia seems to have understood, even if late, that the strategic depth to combat Iran should be through Iraqi politics,” said Ali Bashar, a political scientist at Bayan University in Irbil.

Few contest Iran’s military influence in Iraq, particularly in the wake of the prominent role that Iran-backed Shiite militias played in the successful campaign against Islamic State. The election will be the fourth since the 2003 invasion and the second since U.S. forces largely pulled back to an advisory role under President Obama.

Former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whom U.S. officials accused of exacerbating Iraq’s sectarian tensions while in office, is trying to make a comeback in this election, but other Shiite candidates may pose even bigger challenged to the Trump White House and the Pentagon. Unlike in some previous elections, the Shiites are divided, giving both the minority Sunnis and Kurds a chance to influence the outcome.

Election officials have approved more than 200 political parties and 43 coalitions vying for the 329 seats in parliament, which will choose the prime minister.

The fluid political situation gives Iran several levers to wield influence, analysts say.

Iran’s superiority in Iraq was on full display as its agents commanded most of the militias that pushed ISIS out of Mosul and other cities,” said Hussam M. Botani, chief analyst at the Son’i El-Siyasat Center for International and Strategic Studies in Istanbul. Tehran is backing the Popular Mobilization, a militia-affiliated political grouping known as the Al-Fateh Alliance, “to strengthen its superiority in politics and try and change the government in Baghdad.”

Iranian-trained military commander Hadi Al-Amiri, 63, runs Al-Fateh and is making a bid for a strong showing in Saturday’s vote. He also simultaneously serves as head of the military wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, an umbrella organized for militant Shiite groups.

If Mr. Al-Amiri’s party scores an upset Saturday, its success will reflect how Shiite voters give him credit for driving away Islamic State from the gates of Baghdad, said Anas Al-Sheikhli, a commercial television director in Baghdad.

“There is one phrase spreading among people: that Al-Fateh is the ‘protector of your pride,’ meaning that they kept ISIS away from the women in your family,” said Mr. Al-Sheikhli. “But when you look at their program, it’s obviously not for Iraq; it’s for Iran.”

Some Al-Fateh officials have floated the idea of a formal confederation with Iran. Officials in Mr. al-Abadi’s administration warned Saturday that Tehran-backed parties may be attempting to interfere with Iraqi electronic voting devices.

“Intelligence information revealed attempts of some influential political parties to disrupt electronic voting devices in order to resort to manual counting to falsify the results,” the chairman of the Iraq parliament’s security and defense committee, Hakim al-Zamili, told the Saudi daily Asharq Al-Awsat.

The Saudi alternative

But as Iran flexes its muscles in Iraq, some Shiite Iraqi politicians have found alternative sources of support from wealthy Persian Gulf countries desperate to reduce Tehran’s influence and pull Iraq back into its traditional role as a regional Arab power.

Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, 44, who at the time of the U.S. occupation headed a major Shiite military force and tacitly cooperated with al Qaeda to plan attacks on American troops, is now seeking the backing of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to lead a new nonsectarian Sa’iroon multiparty bloc that includes Sunni Arabs, secular Iraqis and even communists.

In a much-scrutinized visit, Mr. al-Sadr met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in July and walked away with a $10 million public pledge to assist Iraqis displaced by interreligious violence.

It’s widely believed in Baghdad political circles that Mr. al-Sadr also secured private assurances of support for his efforts to create a joint Shiite-Sunni electoral list to repel Iranian dominance.

“Sadr and bin Salman agreed to continue using a language of moderation and to get rid of this sectarian discourse,” said Mr. al-Sadr’s spokesman, Salah al-Obeidi. “A breakthrough was also made when [the crown prince] admitted mistakes were made in the former Saudi administration that helped Iran dominate Iraq.”

Elizabeth Dickinson, a senior analyst with the Crisis Group, said the political situation ahead of Saturday’s vote is “fluid,” with all the major ethnic and sectarian groups divided. But she said there is a good chance Saudi influence could be enhanced by the vote.

“A constellation of stars aligned to encourage Saudi Arabia and Iraq to end their long estrangement,” she said in an interview posted on the think tank’s blog.

“There is a belated realization in Riyadh that Iraq’s Shiites do not necessarily gravitate toward Iran and its theocratic form of government, and that instead prize their sense of belonging to the Arab world,” Ms. Dickinson added.

The Iranians oppose the Sadr-Salman alliance.

Iran will not allow the liberals and the communists to govern Iraq,” Ali Akbar Velayati, the top adviser to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, declared during a recent visit to Baghdad.

The scrambled alliances have raised hackles in traditional Shiite quarters — with the mullahs’ Hezbollah Brigades and Al-Fateh organizing demonstrations to protest plans for a proposed visit by Crown Prince Mohammed to Baghdad.

A high-profile visit by the hard-charging heir apparent to the Saudi throne would be a massive public relations victory for Sunni Arabs and others who oppose Shiite extremists.

Iraq has a very important role in the Arab world, and we support reconstruction efforts there” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said in February at an international donors conference held in Kuwait to help Iraq’s reconstruction efforts in the wake of the war against the Islamic State.

Saudi Arabia pledged $1 billion in loans and $500 million in export credits backing. Iran pledged nothing.

“This is not just happening because the Saudis are smart,” said Bayan University’s Mr. Bashar. “The Trump administration told the Saudis to change their policy toward Iraq and engage the Shiites here as well as their traditional Sunni friends. Saudi Arabia has realized that Sunnis are not able to directly face the Iranian influence. It changed its tactics towards supporting some Shiite powers to face that influence.”

• Gilgamesh Nabeel reported from Istanbul. Jacob Wirtschafter contributed to this report from Cairo.

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