Karim Nouri has swapped his military fatigues for a business suit, the battlefields of the northern plains of Iraq for a newly furnished office in an upscale neighborhood of Baghdad. Just five months after the government declared official victory over ISIS, the former spokesperson for the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), an Iranian-backed paramilitary force, is one of 7,188 candidates in the May 12 parliamentary elections.
“We succeeded in uniting and defending Iraq. Now we have to succeed in running the politics,” said Nouri, a member of the Badr organization, a political party whose military wing forms part of the PMF. Badr is the lead party under the Conquest Alliance, a bloc of Shia Islamist groups that includes the political arms of several PMF militias as well as other parties with close ties to Iran.
The PMF, called Hashd al-Shaabi in Arabic, played a decisive role in defeating ISIS in Iraq. Mobilized in 2014 through a religious fatwa, the 150,000-strong force consists of dozens of unruly, mostly Shia militia groups. When the Iraqi army collapsed, the PMF, along with Iraqi special forces, stopped the advance of ISIS on Baghdad. Even after the US-led coalition entered the war and began providing air support, the Iran-equipped militias remained an indispensable ground force that was later, at least nominally, integrated into the Iraqi army.
But the participation of its members in this year’s elections has raised fears that an electoral success could cement Iranian influence over Iraq’s political institutions. Iraq has long been the battleground for competing geopolitical interests, most notably those of the United States and Iran. These elections could alter the balance of power between the two nations and give more sway to groups that seek to curtail the US presence. Even if US-backed Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi secures a second term, analysts say that Conquest is likely to play a key role in the forthcoming governing coalition.
Conquest’s electoral bid has drawn criticism from both sides of the sectarian divide. “Iran will play a big role after the elections in forming the government. This will not give Iraqis the chance to solve their own problems,” said Dhaafar Alaani, the head of Moutahidoon, the biggest Sunni coalition in Iraq’s parliament. Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has also criticized Conquest, accusing it of deepening sectarian divisions and undermining Iraq’s independence.
More than 500 candidates are running as part of the alliance, a third of whom are members of Badr. Also running are 41 members of the political arm of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, an Iranian-funded militia that claimed responsibility for thousands of attacks on American troops during the 2000s.
Nouri bristled at the idea that the PMF’s military gains have allowed Iranian influence to spread: “This is not correct. Yes, Iran supported Iraq, but that doesn’t mean the victory on the ground was Iranian. Many countries supported Iraq; our relations with Iran are good, just like with other regional countries.”
Even though Nouri insisted that Badr isn’t taking orders from Tehran, his personal as well as the party’s history suggest an inevitable strategic and ideological alignment. In 1986, after enduring a five-year prison term amid Saddam Hussein’s crackdown on Shiite political dissidents, Nouri fled to Iran and stayed for 17 years. There, he joined Badr, which was formed in Iran in 1982 as the military wing of an Iran-based Shia Islamist party called the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution of Iraq. Nouri returned to Iraq in 2003, after the US invasion provided a political opening for Badr and other Shiite parties that had been oppressed by Saddam, himself a Sunni.
This is Nouri’s first time running for office, but his Badr organization is no stranger to Iraqi politics. The party has been involved in elections since 2005 and currently holds 22 out of 328 parliamentary seats. The Ministry of Interior is headed by a Badr member, which has given the organization substantial authority over national-security matters. The party’s leader and the top candidate of the Conquest Alliance, Hadi al-Ameri, previously served as minister of transport, with Nouri as his spokesperson and adviser.
Even though Badr has become part of Iraq’s political mainstream, its latest electoral ambitions as the leader of a new alliance have been a source of controversy in the wake of a divisive war.
“These are the first post-ISIS elections. What has happened in between is the reemergence of paramilitary groups with vengeance, who have gained a lot of military power and are trying to parlay that into political and economic power,” said Joost Hiltermann, program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group.
To calm fears over the PMF’s growing sway, Abadi vowed that militiamen wouldn’t be allowed to run in the election. Nouri and many other Conquest candidates responded by simply resigning from their military posts.
“We are politicians in the first place, but when danger came to Iraq, we went to fight for Iraq. That’s our right,” Nouri said. “But we are not going to enter the parliament with rifles and our uniforms, we will enter as politicians. Should we be punished for defending Iraq?”
Yet the two dozen photos pinned to the wall outside of Nouri’s office suggest he’s more army man than politician. All but one show him in military fatigues, toting an automatic rifle or standing alongside PMF troops, with smoke from a nearby front line billowing in the background. In one photo, he is seen alongside Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of the PMF. Muhandis holds a spot on the US list of designated terrorists for orchestrating attacks on US troops in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion and, according to the US Treasury website, for being “an advisor to Qasem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s Qods Force.” The Qods Force, also known as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, is one of Iran’s most powerful institutions and has been hit with sanctions by the United States.
To defeat ISIS, the Iranian-backed PMF and the US-led coalition had no choice but to work together, but this hasn’t diminished antagonism between the two sides. Nouri said he views the US military presence in Iraq as an occupation and would like to see a complete withdrawal of American troops, a stance that is shared by many Iraqis and most parties running in the elections. “We are against US presence in Iraq. Other regional countries like Iran could see this as a provocation,” he told me.
US troops left Iraq in 2011, only to return three years later to help the government fight ISIS. With combat operations officially over, the US has begun reducing the more than 8,000 troops that were present in the country as of November 2017. The precise size and nature of the future US presence is a source of contention in Iraq and subject to ongoing negotiations. Future arrangements will depend in no minor part on Saturday’s election results, and whether political entities like Conquest will have a significant say in the forthcoming government.
Though most Iraqis harbor a strong aversion toward any sort of outside influence, many also regard Iran as a more logical ally than the United States. Iraq and Iran are both Shiite-majority countries. They share a 900-mile border, and the two governments align on many national-security matters. Iraq is home to the holy Shia cities of Kerbala and Najaf, which attract millions of Iranian pilgrims each year.
“Iran and Iraq have the same interests,” said Sadeq Malala, a resident of Kadhimiya, a suburb of Baghdad home to an important Shia shrine. As we speak, in a cafe on the roadside of one of Kadhimiya’s main thoroughfares, buses shuttling pilgrims—many of them Iranian—to the holy site continue to pass by.
Malala is unequivocal about his support for the Conquest Alliance. When Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s leading Shia cleric, called on Iraqis to take up arms to defend their cities and holy sites, Malala was quick to obey. He joined the tens of thousands of unarmed volunteers who delivered aid to the front lines and helped treat the PMF’s wounded. “If it wasn’t for the PMF, Iraq would be finished,” he told me.
Such support for the PMF isn’t unusual, especially in Shiite areas. “The normalization of Hashd al-Shaabi is something that has already happened. Hashd for Iraqis in Iraq is not the source of controversy that it is outside of Iraq,” said Fanar Haddad, senior research fellow at the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore.
But in the predominantly Sunni city of Mosul, residents still live in fear of local PMF militias, which continue to man checkpoints despite earlier announcements that the PMF would withdraw from the city. Since the official defeat of ISIS in Mosul, there have been mounting reports of kidnappings and illegal seizures of property at the hands of PMF fighters. Alaani, the head of the main Sunni bloc in parliament, told me the demobilization of PMF forces in Sunni areas was a precondition for working with Conquest in the forthcoming government: “If they gave us a program on how to control the militias, [we would work with them]. This is a very important issue for our community.”
The PMF was officially made part of the Iraqi army in 2016, but this hasn’t curbed close contact with Iranian leaders. In March this year, another law was passed guaranteeing PMF fighters salaries and rights equivalent to the regular army. But whether such steps will allow the government to assert effective control over the militias remains to be seen until after the elections. “If you get an anti-Iran coalition then you will definitely see attempts in the future to integrate the PMF into the security forces, and not just nominally through law but effectively. But that’s going to be a tough struggle,” said Hiltermann of the ICG.
Even though the Conquest Alliance can count on the votes of PMF fighters and volunteers, a growing number of Iraqis reject parties they regard as overtly sectarian. “I don’t care about whether the person governing Iraq is Shia. I want a person who serves our country and the people,” said Kadhum Flayeh, a Shiite shopkeeper from Baghdad’s Karada neighborhood.
Flayeh is one of hundreds of thousands of people who have taken to the streets over the past months to protest against corruption, which has become a defining feature of Iraqi politics since the fall of Saddam in 2003.
“All the politicians are corrupt, but until now we haven’t seen anyone being convicted,” Flayeh told me. “Unless the heads of the parties change, nothing will change in this country.”
The weekly demonstrations in Baghdad’s Liberation Square are in themselves a sign of shifting political winds. They have been spearheaded by followers of the popular Sadr, who led the insurgency against US troops in 2003. Sadr has since recast himself as the champion of a nationalist and anti-sectarian Iraq and has joined forces with liberal and secular parties in this year’s electoral race.
Sadr has distanced himself from Iran, criticizing Prime Minister Abadi for planning to form an electoral alliance with Conquest. Abadi quickly changed course and now runs on a platform that appears on the opposite end of the political spectrum from Conquest. He has formed his own cross-sectarian bloc to capitalize on the swelling anti-sectarian current flowing through some parts of Iraqi society. Abadi’s Victory Alliance is the only party listed that has fielded candidates in all of Iraq’s 18 provinces, a sign that his calls for national unity are more than just electoral slogans.
Cross-sectarian alliances, Haddad told me, “are likely to set a new benchmark in the culture of electoral politics in Iraq. Whether they actually secure a critical mass of votes this time around is much more uncertain.”