Our man in Iraq was supposed to cruise to victory in the country’s May 12 elections. After all, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi led Baghdad to victory against ISIS and then restored Iraqi sovereignty over large swaths of territory controlled by the Kurds.
Then the votes were counted, and although U.S. policymakers pretend otherwise (in part because they don’t know exactly what to think), they are reeling over the verdict delivered by the peoples of Iraq. First place went to a Shiite cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army attacked U.S. troops a decade ago. Second place went to the Fatah Alliance, a grouping so closely identified with Iran that its leader Hadi al-Amiri fought on the Tehran side in the 1980s Iran-Iraq War.
In Kurdistan, voters were supposed to punish the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) for economic mismanagement and for staging an independence referendum that resulted in economic sanctions and Iraqi military attack. Instead, the KDP improved on its 2013 vote and is the only party in Iraq to win an absolute majority in two provinces. KDP leaders spoke openly about self-determination and were rewarded by the independence-minded Kurds.
Haider al-Abadi’s unfortunately named Victory List finished fifth in populous Baghdad and third overall. He did win Nineveh Province (Mosul) but the turnout was so low that it is unclear whether the vote was Sunnis grateful for liberation from the so-called Islamic State or the province’s minority Shiites, Yazidis and Christians. Turnout was just two thirds that of the previous parliamentary elections and only in the KDP stronghold of Dohuk did it exceed 50 percent. Except in Kurdistan, Iraqi voters rejected both the political establishment and the political process.
U.S. policymakers have long viewed Iraq through the person of its leader. In recent years (under Trump and Obama), the goal was to strengthen Abadi. One shortcoming of this personality based approach is to see “our man” not as he is but as he is wished to be. Thus, the narrative on Abadi is of a moderate who will stand up to the Iranians and reconcile Iraq’s disaffected Sunnis (who had been so alienated by the sectarian policies of our previous man in Iraq, then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, that many initially welcomed ISIS).
Inconvenient facts are best ignored. The soft-spoken, English-speaking Abadi (and it always helps if our man is fluent) is in fact a member of the Iranian-funded Dawa party headed by Maliki. In 2017, Abadi gave a green light to Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s al Quds Force, to attack the Kurds in Kirkuk. In that same vein, the Trump Administration bet so heavily on Abadi that it allowed a Shiite militia commanded by convicted terrorist Abu Mahdi Muhandes, sentenced to death in absentia for blowing up the U.S. embassy in Kuwait in 1983, to use U.S. supplied Abrams tanks in the assault. (The Kurds had mistakenly thought their role in stopping ISIS after the Iraqi Army collapsed in 2014 made them America’s men in Iraq. )
Under Iraq’s constitution, the president must nominate the prime minister from the largest bloc in parliament, which since 2009 has been interpreted to mean the parties that can put together the biggest post-election alliance. The nominee must win a majority or 165 votes. A further complication is that a new president, whose powers are largely symbolic, must be elected by a two-thirds vote before a prime minister can be nominated.
This a process that invites bargaining. Sadr starts with about 55 seats, just one third of the number needed. The combined pro-Iran list (Amiri-Maliki) would have about 75 seats, not even half the number needed for a majority. In circumstances where even relatively small parties have clout, there are a lot of potential king makers.
The United States’ preferred option is to find a way to keep Abadi in power. Sadr, who did not run for parliament and is therefore not a potential prime minister, has indicated that he is open to an alliance with Abadi, the Kurds and the Sunnis. In theory, this could lead to Abadi remaining prime minister, albeit at the sufferance of Sadr. But, there are complications in Iraq and the United States.
The Sunnis, who already feel marginalized, are not likely to welcome a government dominated by a figure whose death squads targeted them. Masoud Barzani, the former Kurdistan Region president who still leads the KDP, has good relations with the Sadr family based on shared opposition to Saddam Hussein and sacrifices. (Saddam hanged Masoud’s brother and murdered more than 8,000 Barzani tribesmen in the 1980s; Saddam killed Moqtada’s father and father in law, both revered Shiite grand ayatollahs). Thus an alliance between the KDP and Sadrists is possible. However, the KDP will not easily forgive Abadi for his use of the army against them or for the economic suffering he imposed on Kurdistan’s people.
In the past, U.S. diplomats have cajoled the Iraqi parties into a deal. Doing so now means U.S. diplomatic engagement to empower a mercurial cleric with the blood of American soldiers on his hands. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, who served in Iraq when Moqtada was on his rampage, may not look kindly on such an effort. Nor will the anti-American Sadr welcome U.S. efforts on his behalf.
In the past, the United States brokered deals in which the Kurds supported America’s preferred candidate for prime minister in exchange for promises to resolve issues of concern to the Kurds: the status of Kirkuk, revenue sharing, oil exports, and the establishment of a second federal chamber. Once in office, neither the prime minister nor the Americans ever followed through. This time the Kurds may demand that actions be taken before any deal—for example, full payment of all back salaries for Kurdish civil servants and the setting of a date for the referendum in Kirkuk.
It will not be easy for the Americans to broker anything again in Iraq. The Trump Administration’s acquiescence in the Iranian-directed attack on the Kurds in October sent a clear message to all Iraqis: even being America’s best friend in the region—as the Kurds were—provides no protection from Iran. At this stage, U.S. diplomats are unlikely to get even the Kurds to follow their line.
Qassem Soleimani, the al Quds commander who directed the attack on Kirkuk, is in Baghdad this week consulting with Iraqi political parties. Unlike the American envoys who are also there, Soleimani has clout. Moqtada al-Sadr campaigned as an Iraqi nationalist opposed to both Iranian and American control of the country. However, a decade ago his Mahdi Army took weapons and explosives from Iran to attack American troops. When the Americans moved to detain him, al Sadr took refuge in Iran.
But, even if Soleimani cannot bring Sadr around from his current anti-Iran line, he can keep other parties from joining his coalition. As noted, even Iraq’s most pro-American parties are now reluctant to cross the Iranians. If Sadr can’t form a larger coalition, the first crack at forming a government could go to a bloc comprised of the two most pro-Iran lists, Amiri’s Fatah and and Maliki’s State of Law. And, it is possible that Iran could induce Abadi to join this bloc.
When ISIS approached Baghdad in 2014 at the start of Abadi’s tenure as prime minister, it was Qassem Soleimani who mobilized the forces that stopped the onslaught. And it was Soleimani who gave Abadi his October triumph over the Kurds, a military victory that Abadi mistakenly thought would give him a second term. While Abadi and Maliki are rivals, a combination of the Amiri, Abadi and Maliki lists would take these Shiite parties a long way toward the magical 165.
The Sunnis and Kurds would hate this outcome. Amiri commands the Hashd al Shaabi, the Shiite militia that Sunnis say is responsible for atrocities in Mosul and Tikrit and that now occupies Kirkuk. The Sunnis alone, however, don’t have the votes to block an Amiri led coalition government. With the Trump Administration being so unreliable, the Kurds may not want to risk what they now have by again defying Iran.
One hour before the Iraq High Election Commission released its first results, Donald Trump tweeted the following: “Remember how badly Iran was behaving with the Iran Deal in place. They were trying to take over the Middle East by whatever means necessary. Now, that will not happen!”
Actually, it may happen in Iraq. Unknowingly perhaps, Donald Trump helped make it possible.