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.”