US pins hopes on Abadi in Iraq’s election
Although the United States has avoided publicly taking sides in Iraq’s May 12 parliamentary elections, Washington clearly hopes that Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi will prevail. Abadi has worked closely with US forces in helping to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS) and is seen as the best hope among Shia politicians of keeping Iran’s influence at a minimum.
Every Iraqi prime minister since the 2003 US-led invasion has been a Shia. These prime ministers have often tried to refashion themselves into political figures who go beyond their sectarian base. For example, former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki tried to create the persona of an Iraqi nationalist with his State of Law coalition. Shias and non-Shias alike have regarded them essentially as Shia politicians.
One of Maliki’s chief problems was that he so alienated and marginalised the Sunnis that many of them grew susceptible to the entreaties of ISIS, which helped it seize large parts of Iraq in the summer of 2014. The success of ISIS that summer led to Maliki’s political demise — at least temporarily.
Abadi, Maliki’s successor, hails from the same Shia Dawa party, which was a clandestine Islamist party during the rule of Saddam Hussein when membership in it was a capital offence. Abadi, however, was seen as more moderate than Maliki, more urbane, having received a doctorate while in exile in Britain, and more willing to reach out to Sunnis.
He also worked well with US diplomatic and military officials in the fight against ISIS and reached out to Arab Sunni countries, such as Saudi Arabia, that had been wary of developing close ties with a Shia-led Iraq.
Perhaps more important from Washington’s perspective, Abadi says that Iraq should have balance in its foreign policy. In other words, it should have good relations with both the United States and Iran, as well as with other neighbouring countries.
US officials, including President Donald Trump and his advisers, see Abadi as a strong ally who is in a predicament because of Iraq’s geography and its demographics. They understand he must maintain a relationship with Iran but hope he will limit the influence of and perhaps one day disband the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), which is mostly made up of Shia militias, to reduce Iran’s role in Iraq. In 2017, Abadi was one of the first foreign leaders to visit the Trump White House.
When looking at the range of Shia politicians and factions, Abadi looks like the most attractive candidate from Washington’s
perspective. His main Shia challengers are: Maliki, who lost credibility with US officials but still retains a substantial following; Hadi al-Amiri, who is from the Badr Brigade, which split from the Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq, and is a leader in the PMF that fought against ISIS and is close to Iran; Ammar al-Hakim, who also split from the Islamic Supreme Council and has formed the Hikma Current to attract a younger generation of Shias; and Muqtada al-Sadr, a firebrand cleric whose militia once fought US forces in Iraq. Although al-Sadr was an Iran ally, he has soured on Tehran and is in alliance with the Iraqi Communist Party — a very strange coalition indeed.
US officials remain concerned about Iran’s influence in Iraq. In mid-March, US Defence Secretary James Mattis stated publicly: “We have worrisome evidence that Iran is trying to influence — using money — the [upcoming] Iraqi elections. That money is being used to sway candidates, to sway votes.”
He added that the money was significant and was “highly unhelpful.” Although Mattis did not mention which candidates are being swayed, Amiri, Maliki and maybe Hakim, because of old family ties to Iran, could be on Tehran’s payment list.
Abadi has created a faction called the Victory Alliance and is hoping to capitalise on the fact that he successfully led the fight against ISIS. He bolstered his nationalist credentials with both Arab Shias and Sunnis last October by moving against Kurdish-controlled areas, such as Kirkuk, that were outside of the recognised boundaries of the Kurdish Regional Government. His Victory Alliance is contesting seats in all of Iraq’s electoral districts.
However, Abadi is still wary of Maliki’s influence. In recent speeches, he reminded audiences that Maliki lost one-third of Iraq’s territory to ISIS in 2014 and squandered much of Iraq’s finances. Maliki keenly wants his old job back and has been taking a more moderate position on Kurdish issues to gain traction outside of traditional Shia areas.
Even considering Abadi’s popularity, the Shia vote is likely to be fractured, which means there likely will be considerable inter-sectarian and inter-ethnic political jockeying following the election. US officials hope that Abadi will come out on top, as the other Shia leaders are seen as either pro-Iran or anti-United States or both but nothing is guaranteed.