With parliamentary elections scheduled for 12 May, Iraq’s political blocs are gearing up to launch their electoral campaigns. The field is a diverse one, with more than 300 political entities and 30 political alliances taking part. The political blocs that have ruled Iraq in one combination or another for the past decade will nevertheless emerge strongest.
The setting is certainly less tense than that of the last election in April 2014, held against the backdrop of enormous Sunni discontent and resentment at the Shi’a-dominated government of former prime minister (2006-2014) Nouri al-Maliki, as well as the emergence of Islamic State (IS) as a territorial force. Sectarianism may not have been at its peak at that time, but it was certainly a dominant force.
With IS defeated, Iraq has experienced a coming together of sorts. The Sunnis and Kurds still have many grievances, yet there is a greater sense among Iraqis that they belong to one country and that it is time to open a new, more prosperous and constructive phase in its trajectory.
The international environment is also considerably different. First, the elections will take place at a time when the US is playing a far more active role in Iraq as a result of the war against IS. Second, President Donald Trump’s administration is more overtly hostile to Iran than that of Barack Obama. This stance is prompting a real sense of unease among Iraqi Shi’a and particularly among those political blocs closest to Tehran.
Trump’s appointment of well-known hawk John Bolton as his national security adviser has further fuelled this unease. Bolton — who played a key role in laying the groundwork for the 2003 invasion of Iraq — is a notorious hardliner who has called for regime change in Iran and who looks determined to overturn the nuclear deal.
The US has certainly made no secret of its concerns about Iranian influence in Iraq. Nor has the US hidden its desire for Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to win another term in office, not least because he is less in the pockets of Tehran than some other prominent Shi’a political leaders.
Iran is also concerned about the US presence and influence in Iraq. Tehran wants to expand its presence in the country, especially through its closest political allies and through the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), as a means of countering US and Sunni Arab influence in the country.
The deteriorating relationship between Iran and the US spells bad news for Iraq and for al-Abadi in particular. The prime minister knows that, if he returns to office after the elections, he will be caught between these two competing powers, while needing to keep both on side.
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