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In Iraqi elections, guns and money still dominate politics

Baghdad – Outside the headquarters of Assab Ahl al-Haq, one of the main Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, fighters post a giant banner showing the US Capitol building being swallowed up by red tents, a defining event in Shia history. is a symbol of.

It’s election time in Iraq, and Asaib Ahl al-Haq – blamed for attacks on US forces and listed as a terrorist organization by the United States – is one of the paramilitary factions whose political wings are on Sunday. likely to win seats in the Parliament. . Banner imagery and a contemporary quote from the 7th-century Battle of Karbala The Pledge of Revenge sends a message to all of them: a militant defense of Shia Islam.

Eighteen years after the United States invaded Iraq and toppled a dictator, the country’s fifth general election highlighted a political system dominated by guns and money and still largely divided along sectarian and ethnic lines. Is.

The same main players in the contest are expected to return to power, including a movement loyal to Shia cleric Muktada al-Sadr, a coalition of militias backed by Iran and the dominant Kurdish party in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region. Other prominent figures include a Sunni businessman under US sanctions for corruption.

A member of the paramilitary group Asaib Ahl al-Haq in front of a banner at the organization’s headquarters in Baghdad on October 1, 2021. (Andrea DiCenzo/The New York Times)

There are glimmers of hope that a reformed election law and a protest movement that prompted these elections a year ago could bring some candidates who are not bound by traditional political parties to Iraq’s dysfunctional parliament.

But convincing disenchanted voters that it’s worth their vote will be a challenge in a country where corruption is so rampant that many government ministries are focusing more on bribery than on providing public services. The militias and their political wing are often seen as serving the interests of Iran compared to Iraq.

Almost no party has given any political platform. Instead they are appealing to voters based on religious, ethnic or tribal loyalty.

“I voted in the first election, and it didn’t meet our goals, and then I voted in the second election, and the same faces remained,” said Wissam Ali, walking down a city street carrying the bumper of a car. Bought in a market. “For the third time, I decided not to vote.”

Ali, who hails from Babil province, south of Baghdad, said he has taught as a temporary lecturer in public schools for the past 14 years and has been unable to obtain a government teaching position because he does not belong to a political party.

Beginning in October 2019, protests intensified in Baghdad and southern provinces demanding jobs and basic public services such as electricity and clean water. The mostly young and mostly Shia protesters demanded a change to a political system where government ministries are awarded as prizes to the largest political blocs.

Customers turn off the lights at a cafe in the Sadar City neighborhood of Baghdad on September 30, 2021. (Andrea DiCenzo/The New York Times)

The protesters called for an end to Iranian influence in Iraq through proxy militias, which are now officially part of Iraq’s security forces, but only under government control.

In response, security forces killed some 600 unarmed protesters, according to the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights. Other estimates put the death toll at 800. Militia fighters are blamed for many of the deaths and are accused of killing dozens more activists in the targeted killings.

The current prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, came to power last year after the previous government was forced to step down due to protests.

While early elections were a key campaign promise, Kadimi has been unable to deliver on most of the rest of his promises: bringing justice to those behind the killings of activists, making a serious dent in corruption, and reining in Iranian-backed militias.

While parties already in power are expected to dominate the new parliament, changes to Iraq’s electoral law will make it easier to elect smaller parties and independent candidates. This could make this vote the most representative in the country’s post-war history. Despite flaws in the election process, including widespread fraud in previous years, Iraq still lags far ahead of most Arab countries in holding national and provincial elections.

“It’s not a perfect system, but it’s much better than the old system,” said Mohnad Adnan, Iraqi political analyst.

He said he believed that some established parties had lost part of their support as a result of the protests – and their bloody repression. Some candidates are hoping to capitalize on the backlash against traditional political factions.

Fatin Muhi, a professor of history at Baghdad’s Al-Mustansiriya University, said he was encouraged by his students to run for office. Muhi, who has been with the party linked to anti-government protests, said that many people in her middle-class constituency had planned to boycott the election, but changed her mind.

“When they found out we were candidates for the protest movement, they said, ‘We’ll give you your vote,'” Muhi said. “We will oppose any decision issued by corrupt political parties.”

Apart from anger and apathy, serious fraud in the last parliamentary election has fueled the boycott campaign.

To combat voter mistrust, which led to record-low turnout in the 2018 elections, election workers are walking to people’s doors in some neighborhoods with voter registration cards. Political analyst Adnan said election officials wanted to “make it as easy as possible for voters who don’t trust the system.” “They are not prompted to register or collect their cards.”

Ahmed Adnan, center, cutting snow at a stall in Baghdad, October 3, 2021. (Andrea DiCenzo/The New York Times)

The country’s 21 million registered voters include an estimated 1 million voters large enough to vote for the first time. Despite TikTok campaign spots and other tactics aimed at reaching young voters, many of them are boycotting the election.

“Our country is for us, not for them,” said 19-year-old Helen Alla, referring to political parties and militias. Ala, a first-year college student, who said she would not vote, was at a demonstration commemorating the slain protesters. “We tried hard to convince them, but they always try to kill us. Now they are trying to defuse the situation so that they can win the elections and bring back the same faces.”

“In every election there is a candidate who comes to a mosque near our house and promises to build schools and pave roads,” said 19-year-old Ahmed Adnan. He said that the election of candidates keeps happening, but none of these have been done.

To support his family, Ahmed Adnan, who is unrelated to Mohanad Adnan, works at a shop selling ice, earning around $8 a day. He is trying to finish high school by studying at home and going only to take exams.

His 18-year-old friend Sajjad Fahil said a candidate came to his door and offered to buy his vote for $300.

Fadheel, who studied in a technical institute and boycotted the vote, said, “He refused to say which party he is contesting for.”

According to several tribal officials, in some areas where there is more money and the race is more hotly contested, the cost of buying votes is up to $1,000.

Sheikh Hamid al-Shoka, head of the Anbar Tribal Leaders Council, said groups commissioned by some political factions were buying people’s biometric voting cards by the thousands. Under that plan, voters agree to leave their cards and later retrieve them outside polling places – making sure they actually turn out – where they vote as instructed.


In a race between the powerful Sunni speaker of parliament, Mohammed al-Halbousi, and Iraqi businessman Khamis al-Khanjar, Sheikh Hammeed said he had asked his followers to support the dagger. The tribal leader said both political figures were suspected of corruption, including Khanjar, whom he admitted to being “corrupt friends”.

“But his friends have worked in the government and offered something to the people,” said the tribal leader. “Others didn’t give anything. He only provided for himself. “

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