Buoyed by their role helping to defeat Islamic State (IS), a number of the most prominent groups from among the more than 60 that make up Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) have come together under the banner of the al-Fateh coalition to contest this month’s parliamentary elections (Iraqyoon, January 11). A number of Iran-backed PMU figures are already members of the existing Iraqi parliament, having been elected two months before IS’ advance and the fall of Mosul in 2014, and this time they aim to win a significantly larger share of the Shia vote.
This election is shaping up to be intensely Shia-focused, with the Sunni population weakened in the aftermath of the campaign against IS and the Kurds suffering the consequences of their failed independence referendum last year. However, while al-Fateh may be able to capitalize on its image as a protector of the Shia community, burnished in the fight against IS, it faces strong opposition from other Shia representatives (Sky News Arabia, April 24).
Parliamentary or Paramilitary
The Iraqi parliament legitimated the PMU on November 26, 2016, formally recognizing it as part of the state security apparatus, despite opposition from Sunni parties. The law gave the PMU greater access to government funding but imposed restrictions on its political involvement (al-Hayat, November 26, 2016). That should have curtailed the PMU’s electoral chances, but the militias managed to get around that hurdle by having their parliamentary candidates either resign or claim to hold no official title within the PMU. Nonetheless, the lines are blurred between where the paramilitary ends and the political begins.
A prime example is Hadi al-Amiri, who has occupied positions in the parliament and the cabinet since his return from the exile in Iran. He is now a candidate for prime minister. As the leader of the Badr Organization, the largest of the armed groups within the PMU, he heads al-Fateh (Baghdad Today, February 2). Similarly, there is Qais al-Khazali, who leads another al-Fateh member party, Asaib Ahl al-Haq (The League of the Righteous, or AAH), and Jamal Jaafar al-Ibrahimi, better known as Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who leads Kataib Hezbollah.
Unlike Amiri, neither is competing in the elections directly. Al-Khazali hopes to build on his status as a Shia cleric who led an anti-American resistance group, while leaving direct political positions to his aides (Annahar, December 10, 2017). Ibrahimi will likewise deploy his lieutenants in political office.
All three men have strong ties to General Qassim Sulleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Quds force. Suleimani, whose role coordinating the activities of Shia armed groups in Iraq has become more apparent since 2014, is the most influential Iranian figure in Iraqi politics (elaph.com, June 16, 2017).
All of Iraq’s major Shia parties, including the Dawa Party of the U.S.-backed Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, are on friendly terms with Iran. Even so, a fleeting alliance announced on January 14 between Abadi and al-Fateh came as a surprise. To much less surprise, it failed to last. While apparently tempted by the possibility of gaining a potentially greater say in decision-making and the allocation of funds available through an alliance with Abadi, al-Fateh called things off. Such a decision would have been made in consultation with Iran, and while al-Fateh officials cited Abadi’s plans to put forward electoral candidates that al-Fateh had not endorsed, it reflects a concern over giving Abadi too much influence too early (al-Mayadeen TV [Lebanon], January 15).
Abadi appears to have suffered no significant political damage from these events. On the contrary, he has been relieved of the burden of al-Fateh and has moved on to run a campaign more consistent with his perceived image as a moderate Shia, favored by the United States and appealing to Sunnis.
In the last election, Badr ran as part of a coalition led by Nouri al-Maliki, the former prime minister. This time it appears confident enough to go into the elections alone (al-IraqNet, May 30, 2017). While al-Maliki has always been a close ally and supporter of the Iran-backed Shia armed groups, al-Fateh’s decision not to join forces with the former prime minister, known for his sectarian and uncompromising policies, indicates that Iran recognizes just how hard it will be for al-Maliki, now alienated from the United States, to make a political comeback.
Al-Fateh’s leaders are far from being Islamist zealots. They are realistic in their political thinking and recognize that Abadi has a good chance to emerge victorious. They also know that the electoral system, and a tendency for Iraqis to vote along sectarian lines, means victory will not give Abadi (or any other candidate) an outright majority. Instead, al-Fateh’s leaders are putting their faith in post-election horse-trading, knowing that they have Iran on their side.
Abadi, who is expected to fare well with Shia middle-class voters, is far from al-Fateh’s only competition. The anti-U.S. Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr represents an even more difficult challenge. He enjoys a solid following within the Shia poor, a constituency that is also important for al-Fateh.
Additionally, many of the PMU’s rank and file came from al-Sadr’s old militia, the Mahdi Army, and al-Sadr rarely passes up an opportunity to condemn the PMU for exploiting its role in the fight against IS (Jawabna.com, April 27). Like the PMU, the military wing of al-Sadr’s movement—known by its current name, Saraya al-Salam (The Peace Brigades)—was also involved in the fight against IS, but kept its distance from the other groups, which al-Sadr criticizes for violations against Sunnis and frequently terms al-Militiat al-Waqiha (“shameless” militias).
While al-Sadr accepts that Iran and Sulleimani will have a role in Iraqi Shia politics, he claims to be independent and insists he will not fall under Tehran’s influence. However, since he is primarily hostile to the United States, he will still likely side with Iran in the case of any U.S.-Iranian disagreement. 
Despite being a conservative cleric, al-Sadr has formed a coalition with the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) in a bid to expand and diversify his voting base. He has also provided Abadi with much needed support over the past four years, albeit primarily due to the bad blood between him and Abadi’s main rival, Maliki.
In the expected post-election negotiations, if faced with a possible al-Fateh-Maliki coalition, al-Sadr would likely support Abadi for another term. In such an event, the small party of al-Hikma, led by Ammar al-Hakeem, could emerge as a key player. Al-Hakeem is the former leader of the Iraqi Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), but split from ISCI last year to form al-Hikma. Although ISCI was once a major Shia party, divisions and disagreements have left it weakened, and it has now thrown in its lot with the al-Fateh alliance (Ashram al-Awsat, July 26, 2017).
Since Iraq’s first multi-party elections after the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, Shia parties in Iraq have won the largest number of seats in the 328-seat parliament. No matter how the vote is distributed, however, the choice of prime minister will not be entirely up to the winning parties. Although rarely acknowledged, no politician has managed to become Iraq’s prime minister without the endorsement of both the United States and Iran, as well as the blessing of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most senior Shia cleric.
Al-Fateh will struggle to unseat the incumbent Abadi, who will likely find that the split in the Shia vote works in his favor. Instead, they will be aiming to win a larger block in parliament and a greater role in government, with the goal of making it harder for Abadi, or any other prime minister, to curtail their influence in future.
 See al-Sadr’s interview with the Iraqi TV station al-Sharqia (YouTube, November 22, 2017).