Temporary progress may be reversed by the country’s upcoming election, growing Iranian influence and international strategy.
On May 12, Iraq will hold its first post-Islamic State parliamentary elections. Rising instability in Iraq’s politics and military indicate that this election will have significant impact on the war-ravaged country’s nascent democracy and its long-term stability.
Current Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is riding a wave of popularity. Voters are expected to reward him with a second term in office for nominally liberating the country from the scourge of terrorism. But Mr. Abadi’s fame may be short lived. A coalition of Shia militia groups the Iraqi leader empowered during the fight against the Islamic State begin to band together to challenge his rule. The fragile united front against the Islamic State built up over the last three years may fracture as loyalty outweighs harmony.
The so-called Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a network of roughly 63 predominantly Shia groups dominated by Iranian-backed commanders, have strategically carved out areas of control starting from the Iraq-Iran border stretching to the Syrian-Lebanese border. Their brazen attitude of publicly welcoming Iranian influence has heightened underlying tensions between Kurds, Arabs, and everyone in between. Their triumph in not being forcefully disbanded after the victorious fight against the Islamic State gives them the legitimacy to form an alliance to contest the upcoming parliamentary vote.
This is a concern, as some PMF groups have demonstrated a willingness to resort to violence and whatever means necessary to achieve their goals. The PMF includes factions such as Hash’d al-Shaabi at the Syrian border and Kataib Hezbollah, an offshoot of Hezbollah in Lebanon. They are pushing officials in Baghdad to end Kurdish aspirations of independence and reduce U.S.-Iraqi relations. I experienced their claim of being under the command of PM Abadi to be largely false. I saw massive reductions in freedom of movement and was forced to lie about my identity to provide humanitarian aid.
“Rising tensions over disputed territory, such as Nineveh Province, adds yet another layer to the national instability.”
With the common foe of the Islamic State militarily defeated, these groups have ramped up anti-U.S. propaganda, increasingly calling for the withdrawal of American troops, and have threatened violence if Washington chooses to keep these troops in Iraq. This is a clear indication that Iran and its allies will continue to hold significant influence over Iraq’s politics– and its security.
Rising tensions over disputed territory, such as Nineveh Province, adds yet another layer to the national instability. The Yazidi minority, which originates from this territory, has long suffered marginalization, discrimination and inhumane treatment. They have withstood persecution in many forms, even genocide in August 2014. Their perception of abandonment by the Kurds, the Iraqi government and the international community have contributed to deep infighting and divisions within their community. This may lead to future instability if Yazidis choose different players to back; this would subsequently threaten major trade routes, political stability, and humanitarian agendas in the northwestern region of Iraq.
We also cannot pretend that these conflicts of power and influence are new to Iraq. During Saddam Hussein’s 24 year reign, the Shia majority were marginalized under a Sunni ruling class. After Saddam’s fall, former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (and the government put into power by the U.S. Coalition) turned the tables dissolving any legitimacy the infant democracy once had. In 2011, when the Arab uprising swept across the Middle East and North Africa, extremist groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State exploited popular despair in the Sunni communities for their own ends.
This vicious cycle of distrust amongst all Iraqis will increase the likelihood of Iranian influence as destabilization creates wider political and military gaps to fill. To counter Iran’s increasing control over Iraqi security and politics, the United States will need allies in Iraq, and the greater region to work together on common stabilization agendas. The dilemma facing the United States, however, is it lacks the legitimacy as an honest broker. In Iraq, the United States has not consistently promoted democracy and human rights for minorities because of short-term gains. An environment that is unstable, corrupt and violent poses a greater long-term security threat to the U.S.
It is imperative that the United States and the international community focus on strengthening the Iraqi security and political institutions, rather than supporting a particular individual or political and religious faction. Loyalties in these fragile environments easily change as survival is everyone’s top priority. Too often, allies end up supporting the wrong side, which stagnates progress. In Iraq, group and individual identity, such as religion or ethnicity, continuously waiver in importance due to an erratic political environment. Unalienable rights like the right to life and liberty, are usually threatened for minorities, if they exist at all.
To prevent renewed destabilization, it is important that the United States and the international community promote reconciliation, inclusiveness and democracy in Iraq. As long as the underlying causes of conflict remain, extremist groups such as the Islamic State will always find a way to emerge from the chaos.
Emmaly Read is a researcher and humanitarian aid worker who recently returned to the United States after serving as the Education and Outreach Coordinator for Joint Help for Kurdistan in Bajed Kandala IDP camp located in the Kurdish region of Iraq.