Surge of threats from pro-Iranian Iraqi militias as al-Sadr wins

The Shiite cleric wins again, gaining 19 more seats than in 2018
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REUTERS/ALAA AL-MARJANI  -   Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr speaks after the announcement of the preliminary results of Iraq's parliamentary elections in Najaf, Iraq, 11 October 2021.

The results were not yet known when different sectors of Iraqi politics branded last Sunday's elections as not very credible. The history of fraud and manipulation in past elections did not invite optimism. What is clear is that, in a country of such democratic weakness, reproaches were bound to come from one side or the other, depending on who won at the polls. In this case it was the Shia cleric Al Sadr, who was already victorious in 2018 - although he did not manage to seize power - but now increases his influence from 54 seats to 73, according to the first results published by the Iraqi state news agency INA.

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AP/HADI MIZBAN - Supporters of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr celebrate holding their placards, following the announcement of the parliamentary election results in Tahrir Square, Baghdad, Iraq, Monday, Oct. 11, 2021.

Sadr's victory could give his party the momentum it needs to finally take power after once again winning the largest number of seats, although initial reactions - although the final results have not yet been officially announced - do not seem to support this trend. Given the results announced by INA, one might think that Iran's influence in Iraq is waning, but according to observers, nothing could be further from the truth. Pro-Iranian parties have been quick to show their dissatisfaction, as reflected in the leader of Al Fateh - one of the Tehran-backed parties - Hadi al Ameri.

"We do not accept these fabricated results and we will energetically defend the votes of our candidates and voters," Al Ameri was quoted as saying in reference to the first news of the results. Such statements are hardly reassuring in a country where politics is not confined to the halls of parliament. Armed militias play a vital role in the political scene, to which al-Sadr referred in his first speech after the elections, saying that "the state must have a monopoly on the use of arms", something that seems hard to believe in a country like Iraq.

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AFP/ SABAH ARAR - Iraqi national security adviser Faleh Fayyad (R), who is also leader of the Popular Mobilisation Force known as Hashed al-Shaabi, sits next to Hadi al-Ameri, head of the Badr organisation and also leader of the Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary units.

Moreover, the first words of the winner of the elections point to a rapprochement with Washington rather than with Tehran. Sadr said that he would not interfere in the Iraqi government's internal decisions, adding that he would "give priority to Iraq's interests". The possible closer ties with the Biden administration have not gone down well with pro-Iranian militias, who are threatening an armed response to what they see as a new episode of electoral fraud. The leader of Kataeb Hezbollah - a pro-Iranian militia considered a terrorist organisation by the US since 2009 - said they are prepared to defend their "sacred entity".

Abu Ali al-Askari also expressed his disagreement with the election results, saying that "what happened in the elections represents the biggest fraud and deception of the Iraqi people in modern history". Reactions within the extremist formation are not too surprising. Their concern about the situation in Iraq is limited to the interests of Ebrahim Raisi's country in the territory, something that is unlikely to change, despite the decline in Iraqi support for pro-Iranian formations.

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PHOTO/REUTERS - An Iraqi woman undergoes a fingerprint scan to verify her identity before voting at a polling station during parliamentary elections, in Sadr City, Baghdad, Iraq October 10, 2021.

Iraq's former prime minister for four years (2014-2018) Haider Al-Abadi has also issued a statement announcing action against those who carried out the 'manipulation': 'We announce our defiance of the announced results and our non-acceptance of them, and we will take all available measures to prevent the manipulation of voters'. However, the head of the EU election monitoring mission, Viola von Kramon, indicated that "the results can be questioned, but what we note from a technical point of view is that the process was calm and orderly".

A tense and extremely complex scenario is looming in Baghdad. Even before the official results are known, reactions have been swirling and alarm bells are ringing in every corner of the country. Uncertainty is rampant in the Iraqi valleys, where the population continues to suffer from the ineptitude of those who should be defending the Iraqi people and the lack of democratic guarantees, which have pushed participation in the elections to a record low. Barely nine million of the 25 million - a 41% turnout - eligible to vote have exercised their right to do so, representing the weariness of a society yearning to emerge from one of the worst crises ever to hit Iraq.