| 20 May 2024, Monday |

In Iraq, election fraud claims fuel uncertainty, divisions

More than three weeks after Iraqis voted in parliamentary elections, pro-Iran Shia militias that emerged as the biggest losers continue to reject the results, plunging the country into uncertainty and political crisis.

Militia supporters have set up tents near the entrance to Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, threatening violence if their grievances are not addressed.

Unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud are casting a pall over an election that was praised by the United States, the United Nations Security Council, and others for being the smoothest in years and free of major technical glitches. The standoff is also increasing tensions among rival Shia factions that could reflect on the street and threaten Iraq’s newfound relative stability.

The vote on Oct. 10 was held months ahead of schedule in response to mass protests in late 2019 in Baghdad and predominantly Shia southern provinces against endemic corruption, poor services, and unemployment. They also objected to neighboring Iran’s heavy-handed intervention in Iraqi affairs via Iran-backed militias.

The election results highlighted the potentially dangerous political divisions among Shia factions. Shia Muslims constitute the vast majority of Iraq’s estimated 40 million population.

The most significant electoral gains were made by influential Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who won 73 of 329 parliament seats. While he maintains friendly relations with Iran, al-Sadr publicly opposes foreign meddling in Iraq’s affairs. The Taqadum party, led by Sunni Parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi, came in second place with 37 seats, while former Prime Minister Nouri al-State Maliki’s of Law bloc won 35.

Meanwhile, the Iran-backed Fatah Alliance, which represents the Shia paramilitary group Popular Mobilization Forces, lost two-thirds of its parliament seats, falling from 48 to around 16 — a stunning defeat.

After taking part in elections for the first time in 2018, the alliance made significant gains. It was riding a wave of popularity at the time after playing a key role in the defeat of ISIS extremists across the country in 2017, alongside Iraqi security forces and a US-led coalition.

However, the mood shifted. Many began to question the necessity of the PMF, an armed militia force that increasingly challenged the authority of the state. The force has splintered, with some factions aligned with top Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani splitting off. The militias have also lost some popularity in the last two years, alienating many people after brutally suppressing a youth-led protest movement in late 2019 and early 2020.

“Iraq is entering a new phase in its political history that the PMF and its Iranian sponsors are ill-equipped to manage,” wrote Ranj Alaaldin, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Together with Iran, the PMF is learning the hard way that power through the barrel of a gun is not sustainable.”

  • Associated Press