New Iraqi party challenges Iran, advocates for normalisation

A liberal secularist party, the “October 25” movement, worries pro-Iran Shia factions, especially amid speculation it might have Kadhimi’s support.
Wednesday 20/01/2021
A file photo shows anti-government protesters chanting slogans and holding a placard in Arabic that reads “Iran out, all Islamic parties I want my right” during a demonstration in Basra, Iraq. (AP)
A file photo shows anti-government protesters chanting slogans and holding a placard in Arabic that reads “Iran out, all Islamic parties I want my right” during a demonstration in Basra, Iraq. (AP)

BAGHDAD – A new political party recently established in Iraq called the “October 25 Movement” is provoking the anger of Islamist parties after adopting a secularist plank, daringly criticising Iran and expressing openness to normalisation with Israel.

The party’s Secretary-General Talal Hariri said his party “was established with a purely secular liberal vision that raised the slogan of the economy first and puts the aspirations of the Iraqi nation at the forefront.”

He described his party as “the first youth experience of leadership and thought.” He added that his party is inspired by the October 2019 movement that toppled the government of Adel Abdul-Mahdi and shook Iranian influence in Iraq, but said he did not have a monopoly on the protest movement’s representation.

Hariri refers by the protest movement to the mass uprising that began on that date against the disastrous social and economic conditions, including the lack of jobs and public services. The uprising quickly turned into a challenge to pro-Iran Shia parties in power by advocating for overthrowing the regime, curbing Iranian influence in the country and curtailing the role of local proxies, political parties and armed sectarian militias.

Against this background, the uprising turned into a political brand that many wanted to use in preparation for early elections that were scheduled for June but later postponed to October for logistical and organisational reasons.

Participants in the protest movement fear the new party will disperse supporters of the protest movement and prevent them from becoming an electoral force influencing the course of elections and ensuring change.

These fears are buttressed by the proliferation of competing parties inspired by the uprising and its slogans. Preliminary official statistics show that more than 400 political parties and entities have applied for registration to run in upcoming elections. More than 200 have been granted official licenses to participate in the polls.

Commenting on the chaotic proliferation of parties, especially those that claim to speak for the October uprising, former Iraqi government spokesman Ahmad Mulla Talal wrote on Twitter that “without a single party that brings together the October uprising’s sympathisers and carries its spirit and goals, and without unprecedented mass participation and close international supervision, boycotting the elections would be preferable and more effective … Otherwise, we will have a worse situation than the 2018 election scandal and its disastrous repercussions.”

In press comments on the sidelines of the announcement of his party’s licensing, Hariri launched a scathing attack on Iran, accusing it of being responsible for the devastation that has befallen Iraq.

The party’s secretary-general said that any political approach to the Iraqi situation must start by confronting Iranian influence and expelling the militias that Tehran has planted in various Iraqi cities.

He added that his party places “on top of its political principles the separation of religion from the state, standing firmly against Iran’s destabilizing policies, and putting Iraq’s interests first.”

His critical remarks angered Iran’s followers in Iraq, who responded with a major media campaign against Hariri, accusing him of supporting homosexuality in the country.

Instead of responding to the accusations, Hariri continued to provoke the militias and their supporters on social media platforms by appearing  on an Israeli TV channel that broadcasts in Arabic to comment on political developments.

The daring media approach in dealing with Iran with such a degree of clarity raised questions about the backers of Hariri and his party, and whether the project enjoys enough protection to last until next elections, now postponed until October 2021.

Informed sources say that the party represents one of the emerging youth currents that enjoy the support of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi.

But Kadhimi’s team has refused to comment on the nature of any link that might exist between the prime minister and the October 25 party.

The team has also not revealed the prime minister’s political intentions for the next stage, including whether he will directly participate in the election race.

The ambiguity regarding Kadhimi’s position worries Iran’s followers in Iraq, and has prompted them to attack all new political projects, in anticipation that one will be supported by Kadhimi.

Observers say that the concerns of pro-Iran Shia Islamists in Iraq are further compounded by the emergence of the October 25 party, which raises the ceiling for confrontation.

If speculation about  Kadhimi’s support for this party are founded, then calls to expel Iran from Iraq will be a very attractive slogan during the upcoming elections. If such support turns out to be true, the new party is guaranteed to be resilient

The party could also be an alternative for some Iraqi voters who see participation in upcoming elections as a necessity to save the country from its current predicament, but consider all old political projects as undeserving of their support.

Observers believe that the emergence of new parties of this type may stimulate wider voter participation and spark unprecedented intense competition over the next vote, making it difficult to predict election results. This would usher in a change for Iraqis long accustomed to elections with pre-ordained results, which usually favour Shia Islamist parties and a number of Sunni and Kurdish formations and alliances.