Iraq’s upcoming parliamentary elections—scheduled to be held on May 12—are being highly and tightly contested, particularly from within the Iraqi Shia community. One of the most influential factions vying for control over the Iraqi parliament is Etilaf al-Fateh (Conquest Coalition), which is mainly comprised of candidates from or closely associated with the political wings of al-Hashd al-Shaabi (PMU-Popular Mobilization Units) militias that are linked to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its Iraqi agents (Reuters [Baghdad], April 25; Aena News [Baghdad], January 15). The Fateh Coalition is running on a political platform promising change, responsive government that provides badly-needed public services for Iraq’s disinherited population, and a battle against corruption. To capitalize on the change message, the Fateh coalition is fielding several candidates who have not previously held positions in the national government. From this pool of candidates, one of the most important is Mahdi Ali Jabar al-Musawi, who is the head of the al-Muntasirun (Victorious Ones) list, a bloc within the Fateh Alliance (Facebook; Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada, April 23).
Mahdi al-Musawi, in his 40s, is a native of the city of Kut, which is located 161 kilometers south of Baghdad in the central-southern Wasit governorate, a primarily rural region of the country that has been underserviced by Baghdad (Facebook). He is a member of the Sadah al-Makasis tribe, which is prominent in Wasit governorate and in other parts of southern Iraq. Al-Musawi attended university in Baghdad, and after 1991, he was reportedly part of the Islamic Resistance movement that was established by the IRGC among the Shia community in Iraq (Facebook, April 20). The movement was formed to fight against the Saddam Hussein government and seek to establish a system based on the Islamic Republic’s wilayat al-faqih (rule of the jurisprudent) inside Iraq. Al-Musawi was reportedly imprisoned for these activities by the Saddam Hussein government (YouTube, April 22).
After the defeat and dismantling of the Saddam Hussein government by the U.S.-led Coalition in 2003, al-Musawi maintained a relatively low profile until the start of the war against the Islamic State (IS) began in the summer of 2014. During that time period, he was most noteworthy for being elected to and serving on the Wasit Governorate Council, where he rose to the position of Deputy Chairman (YouTube, October 30, 2013). He was a member of the Da’wa Party, the party of then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which has been in close association with the IRGC since the 1980s. While serving on the Wasit Governorate Council, al-Musawi was a forceful advocate for improved support to Wasit from the national government in Baghdad (YouTube, March 10, 2013; Burath News [Wasit], April 21, 2012). Then, as a result of what he stated to be a lack of such support from the al-Maliki government, he broke from the Da’wa Party in April 2011 (Wasit News [Kut], April 28, 2011). Al-Musawi then established and headed up his own political bloc, al-Dawla al-‘Adala al-Ijtim’aiyya (State of Social Justice), which was mainly based in Wasit (Facebook). This experience demonstrated his ability with political mobilization and established his bona fides as a maverick politician willing to speak truth to power. These characteristics are all features of his platform for how he has been campaigning for the May 12 election (Facebook).
Mobilizing Against Islamic State
The conflict against IS began while al-Musawi was still serving on the Wasit Governorate Council. By that point in time, he was associated with Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada (Lord of the Martyrs Brigades), an Iraqi Shia militia group closely associated with the IRGC that had been sending fighters to protect the important Shia shrine of Sayyida Zaynab in the southern suburbs of Damascus and to fight with al-Assad government forces in eastern Syria against IS (al-Alam [Tehran], August 21, 2017; Facebook, November 27, 2015; Enab Baladi [Damascus], February 26, 2015). Al-Musawi became the spokesman for Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada as it began to participate as a group within the PMU umbrella in the campaign against IS inside Iraq, and the head of Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada’s political bureau, as it tried to appeal to Iraqis beyond the Shia community (YouTube, July 16, 2017; YouTube, June 14, 2017; YouTube, November 24, 2015).
Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada was active in different fronts against IS, including participating in the campaign against IS’ Iraqi capital of Mosul. It was working from these positions within the Sayyid al-Shuhada organization that al-Musawi established the PMU organization’s political platform in April 2017, which laid the groundwork for its associated political group, the Muntasirun list. That platform argued in favor of a resistance society that meets the needs of the disinherited in Iraq and honors the ordinary Iraqis that joined the PMUs against Islamic State (YouTube, January 15; YouTube, December 22, 2017; al-Mojaz Iraq [Baghdad], April 30, 2017). Since joining the Fateh Coalition, al-Musawi has emerged as one of its most prominent spokesmen, appearing frequently and effectively on Iraqi television in interviews and participating in debates (Facebook, April 21; YouTube, April 10; Facebook, April 2; YouTube, January 25). His role in supporting the PMUs, such as Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada, has been highlighted in campaign rallies and ads commissioned by the Fateh Coalition (YouTube, April 22; YouTube, April 14).
Mahdi al-Musawi is a rising Shia Iraqi leader who is symbolic of an important trend in Iraqi politics. He is representative of the modern, and increasingly mature, “Islamic Resistance” socio-political movement that was nurtured by the IRGC in Iraq in the 1980s. Al-Musawi is a long-running participant in the Islamic Resistance who once had a relatively low profile, but is now gaining greater prominence as a representative for the political movement that has evolved out of the mass mobilization that occurred with the PMUs. He is neither a noteworthy PMU military commander nor a long-time, high-level leader of the movements founded in Iraq in cooperation with the IRGC. However, al-Musawi is a rising leader who has a skill for mass politics at the local level that is important to the IRGC-backed, PMU-based Iraqi political movements.
The organization that he represents, Kata’ib Sayyida al-Shuhada, has also established itself as a group known for being willing to defend the Shia community and its cultural heritage, whether in Damascus or in Najaf. Therefore, it is one of the more important IRGC-backed PMU organizations. Kata’ib Sayyida al-Shuhada’s strong position within the PMU movement increases the prominence of al-Musawi, and has enabled him to establish himself as one of the more important candidates seeking election as part of the Fateh Alliance. In the post-IS-conflict period, the PMU organizations that are supported by the IRGC will continue the project of a building a multi-faceted, “resistance society” that resembles what Hezbollah built on a larger scale in Lebanon. Al-Musawi, a politician with a gift for debate and an understanding of how to work at the grassroots level, will be one of the engineers overseeing the attempted completion of this project for the IRGC and its PMU partner organizations.