25 June 2018
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Rushed Proceedings, Lack of Due Process, Disproportionate Sentences

(Beirut) – Iraq’s judiciary should change its approach to dealing with detained foreign women and children who are accused of affiliation with the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), Human Rights Watch said today. Since January, Iraq has proceeded with rushed trials against foreigners on charges of illegal entry and membership in or assistance to ISIS without sufficiently taking into account the individual circumstances of each case or guaranteeing suspects a fair trial.

Most foreign women are being sentenced to death or life in prison. The Iraqi justice system is also prosecuting foreign children, ages 9 and up, on similar charges, and sentencing them in some cases with up to five years in prison for ISIS membership and up to 15 years for participating in violent acts.

“Iraq’s ‘one size fits all’ approach to women who traveled to live under ISIS or to children whose parents brought them along is producing unjust outcomes in many instances,” said Nadim Houry, Terrorism/Counterterrorism director at Human Rights Watch. “Iraqi justice should take into account their individual circumstances and actions and give priority to prosecuting the most serious crimes while exploring alternatives for lesser ones.”

Human Rights Watch attended the trials of seven foreign women and three foreign children. Human Rights Watch also spoke with relatives of detainees and some of the lawyers representing them, and reviewed media reports of trials of at least 72 foreign women. The prosecuted women are from a number of countries, including, Turkey, Russia, France, Germany, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Trinidad and Tobago.

Most of the foreign women and children held in Iraq belong to a group of more than 1,300 foreigners detained by Iraqi forces last August during the battle for the ISIS stronghold of Tal Afar in the northwest of Iraq. A security source told AFP news agency that the group was composed of 509 women and 813 children, though the overall number of foreign women and children in detention is believed to be higher based on information from sources close to the penitentiary system in Baghdad.

In September, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi stated in an interview that most of the women and children were not guilty of a crime, and that his government was “in full communication” with their home countries to “find a way to hand them over.” But Iraq appears to have changed its approach and starting in January 2018, proceeded to prosecute women and children ages 9 and up. Meanwhile, the women and children are detained in overcrowded conditions.

A relative of one woman held with her 2-year-old child for months in an airless leaking cell near Mosul with about 25 other women said: “The food they were getting was barely enough to keep them alive. Many were sick but no doctor ever came to see them. One of [her fellow] inmates gave birth right in the cell.”

Despite several requests from Human Rights Watch, Iraq has not issued any statistics about how many trials of foreigners it has conducted.

In accordance with Iraqi law, suspects have access to a defense lawyer and a translator is provided, though in many instances the translator was without any qualification and was chosen from people in attendance. However, opportunities for a meaningful and substantive defense were lacking in the cases reviewed by Human Rights Watch. Lawyers told Human Rights watch that they rarely have access to their clients before the hearings and in the cases monitored, judges were quickly dismissive of the defendants’ arguments, including their claims that they had simply followed their husbands or had been coerced to and had not supported or officially joined ISIS.

Human Rights Watch is not in a position to assess the veracity of these claims and recognizes that some women may have contributed to abuses perpetrated by ISIS. However, judges should ensure that the defendants and their representatives are able to prepare and present all evidence in their defense, including the individual circumstances through which they ended up in Iraq and examine what their contribution was – if any – to ISIS abuses.

The lack of opportunities for a substantive defense, the broad nature of the charges, and the speed with which the trials are conducted, indicate that these trials fall short of fair trial standards. In addition, disproportionately lengthy prison terms may violate the prohibition on cruel and inhuman punishment. Assuming imprisonment is warranted in a particular case, the question of proportionality turns then on the length of the sentence. Prison sentences should take into account the seriousness of the offense and the culpability of the offender.

Membership in an illegal group, especially one responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity, could warrant severe sentences, but in the cases monitored by Human Rights Watch Iraqi authorities did not seem to sufficiently examine what drove a particular person to travel to ISIS territory or the actual role – if any – of these women in the organization. In this context, sentencing women to 20 years in prison or the death penalty merely because they traveled to live under ISIS, married an ISIS fighter, or received a monthly stipend from ISIS for the death of their husband risks violating the principle of proportionality. Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all cases.

Some of the foreign children prosecuted may have been responsible for acts of violence while simultaneously being victims of ISIS themselves. International juvenile justice standards call on national authorities to make efforts to seek alternatives to prosecution, and to prioritize rehabilitative measures with the aim of reintegration of children into society. Authorities should incarcerate children only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period. In 2007, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child found holding children criminally responsible below the age of 12 “not to be internationally acceptable.”

Particularly troubling is Iraq’s approach to children who are only accused of membership in a group like ISIS and not of any specific violent act. In 2016, the UN secretary-general criticized countries that respond to violent extremism by administratively detaining and prosecuting children for their alleged association with such groups. His special representative for children and armed conflict has also stated that child soldiers should not be prosecuted “simply for association with an armed group or for having participated in hostilities.”

The Iraqi authorities should prioritize prosecuting those responsible for the most serious crimes while seeking alternatives to prosecution for those who may have traveled to join or live under ISIS under constraint or who personally harmed no one in Iraq, Human Rights Watch said. Alternatives might include reparation, community service or participation in national truth-telling processes. In dealing with children, the authorities should focus on rehabilitation rather than punitive measures.

Iraq is responsible for ensuring the safety and basic rights of women and children in its custody. But their home countries’ and other foreign embassies should encourage Iraqi authorities to ensure that all defendants, including the countries’ own nationals, have a fair trial with due process rights and are not sentenced to death.

Iraq should develop a national strategy that prioritizes the credible prosecution of those responsible for the most serious crimes and the international community should support programs to provide alternatives to detention and prosecution, including rehabilitation and reintegration programs for children suspected of ISIS affiliation.

Iraq should prosecute child suspects only as a measure of last resort and with the purpose of any sentence being to rehabilitate and reintegrate the child into society. Those brought by their parents to Iraq should not be prosecuted for illegal entry if they had no choice in the matter. The authorities should also drop prosecutions for children for mere affiliation with ISIS if they did not commit any other crime themselves.

Sentences should be proportionate to the crimes committed. The broad prosecution under terrorism charges of all those affiliated with ISIS in any way, no matter how minimal, could lead to unfair results and ultimately dilute responsibility for the horrible crimes committed by ISIS.

“Under Iraq’s current approach, those who killed for ISIS are basically getting the same sentence as those who simply married ISIS members and had children,” Houry said. “Such an approach does not advance justice nor does it advance victims’ rights. Iraq should change tack.”

Prosecution of Foreign Women
Iraqi criminal proceedings involve a two-stage process. An investigative judge conducts an investigative hearing and then refers the case to trial before a three-judge panel. In the cases monitored by Human Rights Watch of those charged in connection with ISIS crimes, victims of ISIS did not attend trials and played no role in the proceedings.

The trials before the panels that Human Rights Watch attended lasted less than 10 minutes, with the presiding judge asking the defendant the same set of questions about when and how they entered Iraq, where their husband is, if they believe in ISIS ideology, and if they received any money from the extremist group.

Sentences are issued on the same day as the trial. Almost all cases reviewed ended with a life sentence, which in Iraq amounts to 20 years in jail, or the death penalty. Human Rights Watch has not been able to confirm if Iraq has carried out any of the death sentences issued against foreign women.

As required by Iraqi law, the women are represented by a lawyer, who is usually appointed by the court. However, lawyers told Human Rights Watch that they rarely have access to their clients before the hearings. Some said they did not have access to the evidence against them. In all trials that Human Rights Watch attended, the role of the lawyer was marginal and in no case did the lawyer’s arguments or evidence appear to have an impact on the outcome.

The presence of translators is required under Iraqi law if the defendants do not speak Arabic, but the qualifications of the translators varies greatly. Some consulates provide translators when their nationals are being tried. But in other cases, translators are ad hoc. In one trial of a woman from Trinidad and Tobago for which Human Rights Watch received information, the court relied on the translation of a journalist in attendance. In another, the court relied on a local Iraqi man who knew Persian and who happened to be in the courthouse that day on other business. When no translator is available, proceedings are postponed and women are sent back to jail.

In none of the cases Human Rights Watch reviewed or attended did the judge ask the women about specific violent actions or their participation in supporting abuses or violations by ISIS. In all the cases, judges were quickly dismissive of the women’s claims that they had simply followed their husbands, or had been coerced and had not supported or officially joined ISIS. However, in some cases, such claims appear to have swayed the court to impose a life sentence as opposed to the death penalty.

Many relatives of detainees told Human Rights Watch that their relatives had simply followed their husbands, or in some cases were compelled to do so. A Russian woman whose sister is on trial in Iraq said:

My sister’s only fault is that she fell in love when she was just 19. A young silly girl. She didn’t know a thing. She left home, married the man she was in love with, and then, he took her to Syria. He told her that he knew better [than her] and that as his wife, she had to follow him wherever he went. When she first called me she was crying, she wanted out – but she was helpless, she had no documents, nothing. I wanted to come and get her. I tried. But by that time, the border was no longer open.

Human Rights Watch is not in a position to assess the veracity of these claims. However, judges should ensure that the defendants are able to present such evidence at trial. Iraqi authorities have told Human Rights Watch that they do not have the capacity to carry out such investigations but judicial requests for cooperation to these women’s home countries could assist in overcoming logistical challenges.

Prosecution of Foreign Children
In Iraq, children can be held criminally responsible for their actions from the age of 9. Children accused of affiliation with ISIS are tried before the same criminal court reviewing terrorism cases for adults. However, according to a local lawyer, their cases are heard in a chamber within this court that specializes in juvenile justice.

A lawyer who has represented many foreign children accused of terrorism in Iraq summarized the situation:

For children between the ages of 9 and 13, the courts are more lenient, though you can still be prosecuted for illegal entry and in some cases, for membership in ISIS. If you are just prosecuted for illegal entry, your sentence is usually between six months and one year. For membership, you get three to five years. If you are accused of participating in a violent act, like planting a bomb, then you can get between five and 15 years.

He said that Iraq has conducted about 400-500 trials of children accused of affiliation with ISIS, including dozens of cases of foreign children, who are also being charged with illegal entry into the country. Human Rights Watch attended the trials of two children from Azerbaijan, ages 13 and 14. Both were sentenced to six months in jail for entering the country illegally even though they were respectively 10 and 11 when their parents brought them to Iraq and said they had no choice in the matter. The 13-year-old had not seen his mother in five months.

Older children are subject to harsher sentences. An Iraqi court sentenced a 16-year-old German national whose case garnered much media attention, to six years in jail – five years for ISIS membership and one year for entering Iraq illegally.

Detention Conditions
Foreign children under age 3 are usually kept in jail with their mothers in often overcrowded cells. Those between 3 and 9 are usually separated from their detained mothers and put in foster institutions run by the Iraqi state. Those between 9 and 18 are held in juvenile detention facilities, a lawyer following the cases told Human Rights Watch. Foreign orphans are kept in local orphanages. Some foreign children have been transferred to their home countries while many others are still waiting to be transferred.

While Human Rights Watch has not been able to visit detention facilities, it received multiple reports about overcrowded conditions at the prisons where the foreign women and children have been held since they surrendered to Iraq forces in August 2017.

Source: hrw.org

BAGHDAD—As Iraq’s fragmented political forces negotiate how to form a new government following last month’s elections, two issues loom large.

Will Iraq’s recent policy of carefully balancing ties with Iran and its rivals, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia—an approach championed by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi—survive in a new political environment?

And will Iraq’s new government be able to take painful steps to jump-start economic reforms, eliminating inefficient subsidies and dismantling corrupt patronage networks that stifle development?

The May 12 election dealt a major setback to Mr. Abadi, whose Nasr coalition came in third in the number of parliament seats. It fell behind the Sairun bloc of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who campaigned on a nationalist platform opposed to interference by Iran and the U.S., and the Fateh bloc dominated by pro-Iranian Shiite militias.

With challenges to election results before Iraq’s Supreme Court and a possible recount, it will take at best two months—and possibly as long as six months—for the new administration to be formed, Iraqi politicians say. It is far from certain that Mr. Abadi, despite his successes in winning the war on Islamic State, will retain the job he has held since 2014. In part that is because of his poor electoral showing and in part because of widespread resentment about the fact that his Dawa party has occupied Iraq’s top executive position since 2005.

Yet, the nature of Iraq’s political makeup—and its geopolitical position—is such that Mr. Abadi’s legacy of improving ties with Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the U.S. while containing Iran’s still formidable influence, is likely to remain even if he leaves office.

“Had there been no achievement of a positive balance in relations with other countries, Iraq would not have been able to defeat ISIS,” said Abdelhussein al-Mosawi, a lawmaker and secretary general of the Fadhila party, a member of Mr. Abadi’s bloc. “No future government would be able to stray away from that balance.”

The head of Mr. Sadr’s political bureau, Dhiaa al-Assadi, embraced a similar view. “We want good relations with all regional countries, but we don’t want them to influence our political decision-making,” Mr. Assadi said. “If Iran is not on good terms with Saudi Arabia, why should we not have good relations with Saudi Arabia? It’s not the Iranian position that should guide our relationship with another country. And if Saudi Arabia is not on good terms with Turkey, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have a good relationship with Turkey. Iraqi interests should come first.”

A key political development this week was Mr. Sadr announcing a surprise alliance with the Fateh bloc dominated by Shiite militias—a joining of forces that, despite disagreements on key issues such as relations with Iran, are simply too strong to remain outside government.

“This coalition will act as a safety valve for Iraq,” said Razaq al-Haidari, a prominent lawmaker with Fateh. “It ends the accusations of negative foreign intervention in Iraqi affairs. We don’t deny that Fateh has strong ties with Iran and that Sairun is welcomed by Saudi Arabia and other Arab sides. This is a healthy sign. This coalition will become the basis of a broader coalition.”

Other likely members of this nascent coalition are the centrist Hikma bloc of moderate Shiite cleric Ammar al-Hakim and the mostly Sunni Wataniya coalition led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, as well as some Kurdish parties.

“We believe in setting up an Iraqi government in the way that protects Iraq from all regional and international conflicts, making it immune from the hostility between the U.S. and Iran, or between Iran and Saudi Arabia,” said Fadi al-Shimmari, a member of Hikma’s political bureau and its senior negotiator in these coalition talks. “And we are very keen to involve Fateh because it is a military power on the ground, and we believe that this power should be fused into government security forces.”

The problem of Iraq’s post-2003 political setup, of course, is that every party always wanted to be part of the government, enjoying the patronage system that comes with controlling a ministry or a province. No significant political force in the outgoing parliament performed the functions of an opposition.

Mr. Sadr, among others, campaigned on the idea that a new Iraqi government should have a clearly defined ruling majority and a clear opposition. That is something that Fateh officials also back.

 “We would like to abolish the quota system,” Mr. Assadi said. “Parties were dividing the branches of government along ethnic and sectarian lines. We would like the cabinet to be built on professionalism, on a technocratic basis.”

So far, at least, it seems that the main political force that’s likely to end up in opposition is the State of Law bloc of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who once sent Iraqi forces to oust Mr. Sadr’s militias from the southern city of Basra, and who is seen by many Iraqis as responsible for unleashing the sectarian tensions that led to the emergence of Islamic State in 2014.

Still, the question for many Iraqis is whether excluding major forces from power could end up destabilizing the country given their ability to provoke unrest—and whether such an approach would hasten or, instead, hamper reforms.

Mr. Mosawi of Mr. Abadi’s bloc argued that the challenges ahead mean that the new government should be as inclusive as possible. “It will need to adopt difficult economic decisions, and so it will need support from the street,” he said.

Other Iraqi politicians disagree. If the current system of political quotas and patronage networks isn’t replaced with a competent, technocratic administration that starts delivering services soon, a political cataclysm may become unavoidable, warned Mr. Shimmari.

“Iraqi people are fed up,” he said. “It is very possible that if we keep coming up with old solutions, we will have a political revolution on our hands.”

Source: WSJ

Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr called on Friday for a nationwide disarmament campaign and announced his Baghdad stronghold would be first to disarm just two days after an ammunitions cache exploded there and killed 18 people.

Sadr, whose political bloc won Iraq’s parliamentary election in May, called on all armed groups to hand in their weapons to the government and declared Baghdad’s Sadr City district would be a weapons-free area later this month.

“Everyone must obey the orders and not stand in the way of this initiative. Everyone should hand over their weapons without any discussion because the blood of Iraqis is more valuable to us than anything else,” he told his supporters in a statement.

The move appeared to be aimed at easing tensions between Sadr and the government.

At least 18 people were killed and over 90 wounded as a result of the detonation of an ammunitions cache in Sadr City just hours after parliament mandated a nationwide recount of votes for the May election, a measure rejected by Sadr’s bloc.

Sadr had urged his followers to remain calm after the explosion and ordered his office to investigate the incident.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, whose bloc came in third, said storing ammunition in a residential area was a crime and ordered the Interior Ministry to investigate the incident and take legal action against those who had done so.

Some of Sadr’s political opponents had suggested the ammunitions cache belonged to his Saraya al-Salam (Peace Companies) militia.

The Interior Ministry released a statement on Friday thanking Sadr for his announcement.

Sadr, a nationalist who opposes the involvement of both the United States and Iran, scored a surprise victory in the May 12 vote by promising to fight corruption and improve services.

Parliament passed a law on Wednesday ordering a nationwide manual recount of votes in the election, after Abadi cited serious violations.

The move could undermine Sadr, who has in the past mobilised tens of thousands of followers to protest against government policies. One of his top aides expressed concerns that some parties were trying to sabotage the cleric’s victory.

Sadr has always been seen as a wildcard in Iraq’s turbulent politics, which is often driven by sectarian interests.

His militia, previously known as the Mehdi Army, staged two violent uprisings against US occupation forces after the invasion. Iraqi and US officials described him at the time as the biggest security threat in Iraq.

source: Middle East Monitor

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Two homemade bombs targeted the headquarters of the Iraqi Communist Party, which is part of an alliance with cleric Moqtada al-Sadr that won Iraq’s parliamentary election, a party official and security sources said.

The explosive devices were hurled into the garden of the building in Baghdad on Friday and did not cause any casualties, said Jassim Helfi, a senior member of the party.

He described the incident as a message from those opposed to the Sairoon bloc’s calls for reforms in Iraq. Sairoon has promised to end corruption and foreign interference in Iraq’s affairs.

Sadr scored a surprise victory in the election by promising better services and tapping growing resentment with Iran and what voters say is its support for a corrupt political elite.

The cleric himself cannot become prime minister because he did not run in the election, though his bloc’s victory puts him in a position to have a strong say in negotiations on forming a new government.

Sadr reached out to dispossessed Shi’ites and marginalized Sunnis, and restored links with Sunni neighbours while keeping Iran at bay.

The nationalist cleric’s success could be a setback for Iran, which has steadily increased its influence in Iraq – its most important ally in the Middle East – since a U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Before the election, Iran publicly stated it would not allow Sadr’s bloc to govern in Iraq, with which it shares a border.

Source: Euronews

Are Iraq's Communists on the rise again? Wednesday, 23 May 2018 22:26

It can only be regarded as a remarkable comeback. Communists, after decades in Iraq’s political wilderness, have formed an unexpected alliance with populist Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr, who swept to victory in the country’s parliamentary elections.

The electoral commission announced that the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) had attained just two seats in parliament. But, crucially, their coalition with Mr Al Sadr's Marching Towards Reform bloc (Sairoun) may give them a voice in the next government.

Forty-four year old Sadr and his coalition partners were able to capitalise on public resentment over the current administration’s failure to improve basic services, fight sectarianism and sideline foreign interference.

They won a total of 54 seats in the 329-seat parliament and, for all of their differences, are united on the positions of non-interference in Iraq’s internal affairs, social justice and the battle against corruption.

"The Communists echo the widely held rejection of the governing system of the past 15 years and stand for a reformist, anti-corruption, anti-apportionment platform,” Fanar Haddad, senior research fellow at Singapore University, said.

“Of course, these are positions, not policies, and it is unclear how these positions can be realised in an actual reform agenda,” Mr Haddad told The National.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the influence of Communists diminished in the region. Many Iraqis believed the party was driven more by ideologies that were attractive in theory but were ultimately far from reality.

At their peak in the 1940s under the command of Yusuf Salman Yusuf, also known as Comrade Fahad, the ICP’s influence increased in the country.

But the anti-Communist crackdown by the police, which led to the 1958 revolution that overthrew the monarchy, meant the party had to work discreetly.

At the time, the Iraqi state at the time was shaken by popular uprisings against the imposition of the British mandate.

Since its establishment in 1934, the ICP played a key role in supporting the revolutions by vowing to combat colonialism but its aspirations were short lived by the rise of the Baath Party in the early 1970s.

It was only after the US-led invasion in 2003 that toppled former dictator Saddam Hussein that the ICP was able to re-emerge in Iraqi politics.

Unexpected alliances

Reports circulated that secular lawmakers refused to join forces with the Sadrists as they found difficulties in finding common ground, some even said it was near impossible for religious and secular groups to align.

But the ICP and Sadrists were able to find common ground in social justice and populist protests against government austerity. The Communists realised it had to accept that only a popular leader could bring radical political changes to the country.

Analysts say the ICP’s decision to align with the cleric was decision based on pragmatic considerations.

“They found that they had not been able to have any impact institutionally in Iraq’s political system, so they found common ground with Mr Al Sadr who has been advocating for the same things as them,” Renad Mansour, senior research fellow at Chatham House said.

Mr Al Sadr, known for leading the Mehdi army, an armed militia group which led an insurgency against US troops, has reinvented himself as a populist preacher who has held a firm position against foreign interventions in Iraq.

While he is unlikely to become prime minister, he will, however, command a significant number of seats and has already begun informal talks about government formation.

Raad Fahmi, the ICP's secretary general, said there had been suspicions and apprehensions from some of its members about joining forces with Mr Al Sadr.

“Actions speak louder than words. He’s not the same Moqtada Al Sadr,” Mr Fahmi said.

Mr Al Sadr’s Mehdi army was declared by the Pentagon in 2007 as the group that replaced Al Qaeda in Iraq and the most dangerous “accelerant of potentially self-sustaining sectarian violence”.

The army was accused of targeting Sunnis in Baghdad and for carrying out assignations around the country. They also clashed violently with Iranian-backed Badr organisation, which controls Iraq’s interior ministry and is led by Hadi Al Ameri.

Mr Al Sadr fled to Iran later in 2007 to become an Ayatollah at a Shiite religious centre in the central Iranian city of Qom.

Upon his return to Iraq, he managed to mobilize a support base that ended with mass protests in Baghdad. They demanded better public services and transparency in government.

There were fears that it would be difficult for non-Sadrists to avoid being swamped by his power, assets and organisational abilities.

“It is more likely that the lion’s share of Sairoun’s electoral gains are from the Sadrist component. In other words, Sairoun needs the Sadrists a lot more than the other way around,” Mr Haddad said.

Although the once-forgotten Communists may have little influence over the next Iraqi government’s policies, Mr Al Sadr’s March Towards Reform bloc has once again brought them back into the spotlight.

Source: The National

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The United States has contacted members of a political bloc headed by former foe Moqtada al-Sadr after his parliamentary election victory put the Shi’ite cleric in a strong position to influence the formation of a new government, a top aide said.

Sadr’s surprise win puts Washington in an awkward position. His Mehdi Army militia staged violent uprisings against U.S. troops after Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003.

If Sadr has a strong say in picking a new prime minister, the United States may have to work with him to safeguard its interests in Iraq, one of its most important Arab allies, which also has close ties to Iran.

Dhiaa al-Asadi, a top Sadr aide, said there had been no direct talks with the Americans but intermediaries had been used to open channels with members of his Sairoon alliance.

“They asked what the position of the Sadrist movement will be when they come to power. Are they going to reinvent or invoke the Mahdi Army or reemploy them? Are they going to attack American forces in Iraq,” he told Reuters.

“There’s no return to square one. We are not intending on having any military force other than the official military force, police forces and security forces.”

The United States is believed to have some 7,000 troops in Iraq now, though the Pentagon has only acknowledged 5,200 troops. They are mostly training and advising Iraqi forces.

Washington and Sadr, an Iraqi nationalist, are both opposed to Iran’s deep influence in Iraq, where it arms, trains and funds Shi’ite militias and nurtures close ties with many politicians.

 

Sadr made his surprise comeback by tapping popular resentment toward Iran and what some voters say is a corrupt political elite in Baghdad that it backs.

IRAN UNDER U.S. PRESSURE

The United States has threatened “the strongest sanctions in history” against Iran unless it makes sweeping changes, including dropping its nuclear program and pulling out of the Syrian civil war.

That will likely prompt Tehran to defend its interests fiercely in Iraq, where it vies with Washington for influence.

Sairoon extended an invitation to the Iranian ambassador in Baghdad to attend a meeting of senior diplomats last week. The envoy apologized and said he could not make it, said Asadi.

Sadr has been meeting the leaders of several blocs and setting conditions on his support for candidates for prime minister. He says he wants someone who rejects sectarianism, foreign interference and corruption in Iraq.

 

Sadr will not become premier as he did not run in the election.

His attempts to shape any future government could be undermined by Iran, which has skillfully manipulated Iraqi politics in its favor in the past.

Just days after election results were announced, Qassem Soleimani, head of the foreign operations branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, arrived in Baghdad to meet politicians.

“Soleimani came to weaken the blocs. He is working to break down the alliances,” said an adviser to Iraq’s government.

An Iraqi former senior official said Sadr would try to outfox Iran, but added that Tehran would not tolerate any threats to Shi’ite allies who have sidelined Sadr for years.

“There are limits on how far he can go. At the end they (the Iranians) can control him. They give him a lot of room to maneuver... But eventually, when he challenges the Shi’ites and their interests, I think they will be very tough. They (the Iranians) have very many tools to undermine him.”

Sadr’s bloc has not ruled out forming a coalition with the bloc headed by Iran’s strongest ally, paramilitary leader Hadi al-Amiri, as long as he abandons what Asadi says are sectarian policies and becomes an Iraqi nationalist.

“We did not have an official meeting with them (the Iranians). Sometimes we receive some calls that are related to what’s going on. But this cannot be considered a meeting or a discussion over any issue,” said Asadi.

The election dealt a blow to incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, whose Victory Alliance came in third. But Western diplomats and analysts say Abadi, a British-educated engineer, still has cards to play.

He appears to be emerging as a compromise candidate palatable to all sides because he has managed the competing interests of the United States and Iran - inadvertent allies in the war against Islamic State - during his term in office.

“As of yet, no one has yet emerged as an alternative, not in a serious way,” said Ali al-Mawlawi, head of research at Baghdad-based Al-Bayan think-tank.

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s Muqtada al-Sadr, the maverick Shiite cleric whose political coalition beat out Iran’s favored candidates to come in first in national elections, says he wants to form a government that puts Iraqis first.

The electoral commission announced early Saturday that the militant-turned-populist preacher, who has long spoken out against both Iranian and U.S. influence in Iraq, had defeated his establishment rivals.

Al-Sadr — who is remembered for leading an insurgency against U.S. forces after the 2003 invasion — did not run for a seat himself and is unlikely to become prime minister, but will command a significant number of seats and has already begun informal talks about government formation.

Salah al-Obeidi, a spokesman for al-Sadr’s Sa’eroun political bloc, told The Associated Press that Iraq’s sovereignty was going to be the new government’s “guiding principle.”

“We warn any other country that wants to involve itself in Iraqi politics not to cross the Iraqi people,” he said.

However, even as al-Sadr is in position to nominate a prime minister and set the political agenda for the next four years, he will find his choices limited by Iran.

The Middle East’s pre-eminent Shiite power has a direct line with some of Iraq’s most powerful politicians, and it is trying to rally them as a bloc to undercut al-Sadr.

Al-Sadr’s rise threatens Iran’s claim to speak on behalf of Iraq’s Shiite majority, a precedent that could fuel independent Shiite movements elsewhere. Also at stake are top ministerial posts — political appointments that are a source of patronage and police and military power.

Al-Sadr himself has kept a relatively low public profile. But in a public relations move that appeared to be directed at Iran, he appeared on Thursday with rival cleric Ammar al-Hakim, who has drifted away from Iran’s orbit in recent years, to say the two men share similar visions for the next government.

Tehran has dispatched its top regional military commander, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, to pull together a coalition to counterbalance al-Sadr, according to an Iraqi Shiite militia commander who is familiar with the meetings.

“Iran won’t accept the creation of a Shiite bloc that is a threat to its interests. It’s a red line,” said the commander, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions.

Al-Sadr’s relationship with Iran is a complicated one. Though he has maintained close ties with Iran’s political and religious leadership, in recent years he has denounced the flow of Iranian munitions to Shiite militias in Iraq, all the while maintaining his own so-called Peace Brigades in the holy city of Samarra, north of Baghdad.

Al-Sadr’s former Mehdi Army militia, which spearheaded an insurgency against the U.S., clashed violently with the Iran-backed Badr Organization last decade.

The militias plugged the gaps left by Iraq’s army as soldiers deserted their posts in the face of the Islamic State group’s lightning campaign in the summer of 2014. With direction from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, they turned the tide against the initial advance. In the years that followed, the militias — coordinating with U.S.-backed Iraqi ground forces — slowly pushed IS fighters back. Iraq declared victory over the group last year.

Al-Sadr has said he wants the militias absorbed into the national security forces, a move Iran would find difficult to accept.

Iran is also rankled by al-Sadr’s recent overtures to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which are locked in proxy wars with Tehran in Syria and Yemen. Al-Sadr met with the crown princes of Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi in August, leading Iran’s hard-line Keyhan newspaper to accuse al-Sadr of “selling himself” to the house of Saud.

It is unlikely al-Sadr can pull together a governing coalition without Iran-aligned political groups, which have the votes to form their own alliance that could challenge al-Sadr’s right to name a prime minister.

An electoral alliance of the militias called Fatah, headed by Hadi al-Amiri, the commander of the Badr Organization, won just seven seats fewer than al-Sadr’s bloc. Sa’eroun won 54 seats in Iraq’s 329-seat national assembly, a far cry from the 165 required to claim a majority.

The militias control the powerful Interior Ministry in the outgoing government and will expect a similar position of influence in the new one.

Al-Sadr seems inclined to woo incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who is seen as a centrist when it comes to Iranian and U.S. interests, and who appears to be wavering between al-Sadr and al-Amiri.

But Tehran still holds considerable sway with al-Abadi’s al-Nasr bloc, which includes several Iran-aligned figures, including one newly minted deputy who has come under U.S. sanctions for allegedly financing Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.

Iran’s political allies in Iraq will try to pressure those figures into deserting al-Abadi and collapsing an al-Sadr alliance if the formulation is not to Tehran’s liking, said a Western diplomat who has been speaking to the sides involved. The diplomat spoke on the condition of anonymity because of media regulations.

That gives Iran — and al-Abadi — leverage over al-Sadr to moderate his positions on the militias and Iran.

Hanging above the talks is the implied threat by all sides to mobilize their followers — and militias — if they feel they are being shortchanged. The collective effect could be to push al-Sadr’s bloc toward a broader governing coalition that would dilute his reform agenda.

His top showing at the ballot box means the next prime minister will have to introduce a civil service law that al-Sadr has championed as an antidote to Iraq’s endemic corruption, said Kirk Sowell, the publisher of Inside Iraqi Politics, a political and security newsletter. But that doesn’t mean the Cabinet or parliament will sign off on it.

“There’s not going to be a functioning majority,” said Sowell. “It’ll be a hodge-podge, coalition government, and it’s not going to be any more stable than the last one.”

Source: PBS

BAGHDAD — Iraqis are still haunted by memories of black-clad death squads roaming Baghdad neighborhoods a decade ago, cleansing them of Sunnis as the country was convulsed by sectarian violence.

Many of the mass killings in the capital were done in the name of Moktada al-Sadr, a cleric best remembered by Americans for fiery sermons declaring it a holy duty among his Shiite faithful to attack United States forces.

The militia he led was armed with Iranian-supplied weapons, and Mr. Sadr cultivated a strong alliance with leaders in Tehran, who were eager to supplant the American presence in Iraq and play the dominant role in shaping the country’s future.

Now, the man once demonized by the United States as one of the greatest threats to peace and stability in Iraq has come out as the surprise winner of this month’s tight elections, after a startling reinvention into a populist, anticorruption campaigner whose “Iraq First” message appealed to voters across sectarian divides.

 The results have Washington — and Tehran — on edge, as officials in both countries seek to influence what is expected to be a complex and drawn-out battle behind the scenes to build a coalition government. Mr. Sadr’s bloc won 54 seats — the most of any group, but still far short of a majority in Iraq’s 329-seat Parliament.

Even before final results were announced early Saturday, Mr. Sadr — who did not run as a candidate and has ruled himself out as prime minister — had made clear whom he considers natural political allies. At the top of his list is Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, the moderate Shiite leader who has been America’s partner in the fight against the Islamic State and whose political bloc finished third in the vote.

Pointedly absent from Mr. Sadr’s list of potential partners: pro-Iranian blocs, as he has insistently distanced himself from his former patrons in Iran, whose meddling he has come to see as a destabilizing force in Iraq’s politics.

While Mr. Sadr has all the momentum going into negotiations over the governing coalition, there is no guarantee his bloc will be in power. And it is too early to tell what the election may mean for Iraqi stability or American national security goals.

But the upset has clearly weakened the sectarian foundation of Iraq’s political system — and helped transform Mr. Sadr’s image from the paragon of a militant Shiite into an unexpected symbol of reform and Iraqi nationalism.

As the head of the Sairoon Alliance for Reform, Mr. Sadr presides over an unlikely alliance that pairs his pious, largely working-class Shiite base with Sunni business leaders, liberals and Iraqis looking for relief from the country’s long-simmering economic crisis.

For those joining the alliance, it was important to be convinced that Mr. Sadr’s shift from Shiite firebrand to Iraqi patriot was sincere, and likely to last.

Late last year, the cleric began reaching out to groups outside his base with an offer to form a new political movement, and the country’s embattled leftists and secularists — once his staunch enemies — faced a moment of reckoning.

They remembered how a rogue Shariah court he had established passed sentences on fellow Shiites deemed too submissive toward the American occupation of Iraq. And they recalled the countless Iraqis killed in battles between the country’s security forces and Mr. Sadr’s militia. 

But a ragtag group of communists, social democrats and anarchists have come to embrace Mr. Sadr as a symbol of the reform they have championed for years — an image that the cleric has burnished, seeing it as the best path to political power.

“Let me be honest: We had a lot of apprehensions, a lot of suspicions,” said Raad Fahmi, a leader of Iraq’s Communist Party, which is part of Mr. Sadr’s alliance. “But actions speak louder than words. He’s not the same Moktada al-Sadr.”

ISIS Changes Everything

The change in Mr. Sadr was prompted by the political and security crisis set off by the Islamic State’s takeover of large parts of northern and western Iraq in 2014, according to Sheikh Saleh al-Obeidi, Mr. Sadr’s spokesman. The ensuing violence led to an overwhelming shift in the public mood: a feeling that sectarianism was at the root of much of the country’s suffering.

Mr. Sadr, the scion of an eminent clerical family, has portrayed his changed political philosophy in starkly pragmatic terms.

In his only extensive interview before the elections, given to his own television channel, Mr. Sadr put forth a manifesto largely adopted from his new secularist allies. He said his goals were to put professionals — not partisan loyalists — into positions of power as a way to build national institutions that serve the people instead of political insiders.

“We have tried the Islamists and they failed terribly,” Mr. Sadr said, a rebuke that his aides said included his own movement. “So let us try another way in which the independent technocrat or independent Islamist or secular technocrat, whoever is best for the job, takes over a ministry and makes it productive. We should try that.”

Whether Mr. Sadr can succeed with his reform agenda is an open question, said Joost Hiltermann, the director of the International Crisis Group’s Middle East program, as building a majority coalition will mean partnering with some of the established faces that voters expressed dissatisfaction with at the polls. Those other politicians “have much to lose from an effort to curb corruption,” Mr. Hiltermann said.

Source: The New York Times

 

 


 

Regardless of how one chooses to read the outcome of last Saturday’s elections in Iraq, one thing is for sure: Iraqi voters have rejected the status quo and sought fresh political players to take over. Outgoing prime minister Haider Al Abadi, whose Victory List wooed disenchanted Sunni voters as well as Shiites, lost most of his base to two opposing coalitions: An anti-Iran, anti-United States alliance of Islamists, secularists and Communists, led by nationalist Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr, and a pro-Iran list led by the head of the controversial Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), Hadi Al Ameri. The latter spearheaded the fight against Daesh, but his militias were accused of carrying out atrocities against Sunnis in Nineveh and Salahuddin provinces.

Despite low voter turnout and allegations of rigging, especially in the Kurdish provinces, those voting for Al Sadr’s Revolutionaries for Reform Alliance (Al Sairoon) were shunning ethno-sectarian politics and rejecting foreign meddling in Iraqi affairs. It was stunning that his euphoric supporters were calling for the ousting of Iran right in the heart of Baghdad the day after the elections.

Al Sadr, 44, is an enigmatic and maverick leader followed by millions, especially in the impoverished neighbourhoods of Baghdad. His now-disbanded militia had fought the US military following the 2003 invasion. At one point, he had taken refuge in Iran, but returned to defy the divisive politics of pro-Tehran, disgraced former prime minister Nouri Al Maliki. He was among the first leaders to denounce the quota system that had deepened sectarian tensions and sidelined Sunnis, Kurds and minorities. Coming from a revered religious family that had opposed oppression during the Saddam Hussain era, he is now seen as an Iraqi and Arab nationalist who rejects Iranian and US meddling in Iraqi affairs. He had supported Al Maliki’s successor, Al Abadi, who also rejected identity politics, vowed to fight rampant corruption and waged war against Daesh.

Al Sadr’s victory is important. His list came first in Baghdad, which has maximum seats, and at least eight other provinces. Although he says he is not interested in a political position, he is now seen as kingmaker — the person who will decide who will become Iraq’s next prime minister. While he said he will support Al Abadi for a second term, the latter’s poor performance will become a factor. As things stand now, not one list can form a government on its own. The coming weeks will witness intense negotiations and horse trading to form blocs and alliances that can muster enough support on the floor of the parliament and win a confidence vote.

Al Sadr may still back Al Abadi and he is likely to have the support of the Al Hikma movement as well, led by Ammar Al Hakim, a moderate Shiite leader. The three will need the support of Sunni and Kurdish alliances and individuals. If they succeed, then Iraqis will be on the verge of a major departure from the divisive political system installed by the Americans.

But Iran still has allies who will work to derail the emerging political power. Al Ameri, who came in second, has the support of hardline Shiite voters in most southern provinces. Already he is said to be negotiating with Al Maliki and Al Abadi, under the aegis of Iran’s strongman General Qassem Sulaimani, to form a united bloc in parliament. Al Abadi will be risking his legacy if he decides to join hands with Al Ameri and Al Maliki.

Emerging centrist bloc

One major broker in all this will be the head of the Shiite religious (marja) institution in Najaf; Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani. His influence over Iraqi Shiites is considerable and he is likely to back the emerging centrist bloc being set up by Al Sadr and his allies. He had asked voters not to elect those who were tried before and failed.

Al Sadr’s success underlines a new reality in Iraq: That a growing number of Iraqis are tired of sectarian confrontations and want stability, security and economic recovery. Al Maliki’s track record is dismal. Under his watch, Daesh took over 40 per cent of Iraq and was few kilometres from Baghdad. His role in any bloc will be toxic at best. Al Ameri will continue to rely on Iran’s support and he may emerge as the head of the opposition if he fails to form a government.

The US role remains crucial as well. The animosity between Al Sadr and Washington should not overshadow his bloc’s determination to stamp out sectarian divides and set the country on the path of reconstruction. Last year, he had reached out to Saudi Arabia, as did Al Abadi, and both remain Iraq’s best hope at this juncture.

But Iraq remains part of a power struggle between Iran and the US. The latest US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal has heightened regional tensions. What most Iraqis hope for is that their country, emerging from a brutal war against Daesh, will not be sucked into the vortex of regional strife.

Source: Gulf News

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi met with Moqtada al-Sadr on Saturday, less than 24 hours after the Shi’ite cleric’s bloc was declared winner of Iraq’s parliamentary election, the clearest sign yet they could work together to form a coalition.

“During our meeting, we agreed to work together and with other parties to expedite the process of forming a new Iraqi government,” Abadi said at a joint press conference.

“It will be a strong government, capable of providing to its citizens services, security and economic prosperity.”

 Sadr, a long-time adversary of the United States who also opposes Iranian influence in Iraq, cannot become prime minister because he did not run in the election.
 

However, his bloc’s victory puts him in a position to have a strong say in negotiations. His Sairoon electoral list captured 54 parliamentary seats, 12 more than Abadi’s.

“Our door is open to anyone as long as they want to build the nation, and that it be an Iraqi decision,” Sadr said.

A bloc led by Hadi al-Amiri, one of the most powerful figures in Iraq, came in second. Amiri, who leads an umbrella of paramilitary groups, has maintained close ties with Iran for decades.

Before the election, Tehran publicly stated it would not allow Sadr’s bloc to govern close ally Iraq, with which it shares a border. Iran has influenced the choice for prime minister in the past.

Winning the largest number of seats does not automatically guarantee that Sadr will be able to hand-pick a prime minister.

Parties will have to align themselves to try and form a bloc large enough for the parliamentary majority necessary to nominate a candidate. The government should be formed within 90 days of the official results, but negotiations are expected to drag on for months.

The election dealt a blow to Abadi, but he could still emerge as a compromise candidate palatable to all sides because he has managed the competing interests of the United States and Iran - unwitting allies in the war against Islamic State - during his term in office.

In recent days, Sadr also met with Ammar al-Hakim, whose Hikma Movement trailed in seventh place, as well as with ambassadors from Iraq’s neighboring countries including Saudi Arabia, Tehran’s main rival in the Middle East.

 Source:Reuters

Rushed Proceedings, Lack of Due Process, Disproportionate Sentences

(Beirut) – Iraq’s judiciary should change its approach to dealing with detained foreign women and children who are accused of affiliation with the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), Human Rights Watch said today. Since January, Iraq has proceeded with rushed trials against foreigners on charges of illegal entry and membership in or assistance to ISIS without sufficiently taking into account the individual circumstances of each case or guaranteeing suspects a fair trial.

Most foreign women are being sentenced to death or life in prison. The Iraqi justice system is also prosecuting foreign children, ages 9 and up, on similar charges, and sentencing them in some cases with up to five years in prison for ISIS membership and up to 15 years for participating in violent acts.

“Iraq’s ‘one size fits all’ approach to women who traveled to live under ISIS or to children whose parents brought them along is producing unjust outcomes in many instances,” said Nadim Houry, Terrorism/Counterterrorism director at Human Rights Watch. “Iraqi justice should take into account their individual circumstances and actions and give priority to prosecuting the most serious crimes while exploring alternatives for lesser ones.”

Human Rights Watch attended the trials of seven foreign women and three foreign children. Human Rights Watch also spoke with relatives of detainees and some of the lawyers representing them, and reviewed media reports of trials of at least 72 foreign women. The prosecuted women are from a number of countries, including, Turkey, Russia, France, Germany, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Trinidad and Tobago.

Most of the foreign women and children held in Iraq belong to a group of more than 1,300 foreigners detained by Iraqi forces last August during the battle for the ISIS stronghold of Tal Afar in the northwest of Iraq. A security source told AFP news agency that the group was composed of 509 women and 813 children, though the overall number of foreign women and children in detention is believed to be higher based on information from sources close to the penitentiary system in Baghdad.

In September, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi stated in an interview that most of the women and children were not guilty of a crime, and that his government was “in full communication” with their home countries to “find a way to hand them over.” But Iraq appears to have changed its approach and starting in January 2018, proceeded to prosecute women and children ages 9 and up. Meanwhile, the women and children are detained in overcrowded conditions.

A relative of one woman held with her 2-year-old child for months in an airless leaking cell near Mosul with about 25 other women said: “The food they were getting was barely enough to keep them alive. Many were sick but no doctor ever came to see them. One of [her fellow] inmates gave birth right in the cell.”

Despite several requests from Human Rights Watch, Iraq has not issued any statistics about how many trials of foreigners it has conducted.

In accordance with Iraqi law, suspects have access to a defense lawyer and a translator is provided, though in many instances the translator was without any qualification and was chosen from people in attendance. However, opportunities for a meaningful and substantive defense were lacking in the cases reviewed by Human Rights Watch. Lawyers told Human Rights watch that they rarely have access to their clients before the hearings and in the cases monitored, judges were quickly dismissive of the defendants’ arguments, including their claims that they had simply followed their husbands or had been coerced to and had not supported or officially joined ISIS.

Human Rights Watch is not in a position to assess the veracity of these claims and recognizes that some women may have contributed to abuses perpetrated by ISIS. However, judges should ensure that the defendants and their representatives are able to prepare and present all evidence in their defense, including the individual circumstances through which they ended up in Iraq and examine what their contribution was – if any – to ISIS abuses.

The lack of opportunities for a substantive defense, the broad nature of the charges, and the speed with which the trials are conducted, indicate that these trials fall short of fair trial standards. In addition, disproportionately lengthy prison terms may violate the prohibition on cruel and inhuman punishment. Assuming imprisonment is warranted in a particular case, the question of proportionality turns then on the length of the sentence. Prison sentences should take into account the seriousness of the offense and the culpability of the offender.

Membership in an illegal group, especially one responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity, could warrant severe sentences, but in the cases monitored by Human Rights Watch Iraqi authorities did not seem to sufficiently examine what drove a particular person to travel to ISIS territory or the actual role – if any – of these women in the organization. In this context, sentencing women to 20 years in prison or the death penalty merely because they traveled to live under ISIS, married an ISIS fighter, or received a monthly stipend from ISIS for the death of their husband risks violating the principle of proportionality. Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all cases.

Some of the foreign children prosecuted may have been responsible for acts of violence while simultaneously being victims of ISIS themselves. International juvenile justice standards call on national authorities to make efforts to seek alternatives to prosecution, and to prioritize rehabilitative measures with the aim of reintegration of children into society. Authorities should incarcerate children only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period. In 2007, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child found holding children criminally responsible below the age of 12 “not to be internationally acceptable.”

Particularly troubling is Iraq’s approach to children who are only accused of membership in a group like ISIS and not of any specific violent act. In 2016, the UN secretary-general criticized countries that respond to violent extremism by administratively detaining and prosecuting children for their alleged association with such groups. His special representative for children and armed conflict has also stated that child soldiers should not be prosecuted “simply for association with an armed group or for having participated in hostilities.”

The Iraqi authorities should prioritize prosecuting those responsible for the most serious crimes while seeking alternatives to prosecution for those who may have traveled to join or live under ISIS under constraint or who personally harmed no one in Iraq, Human Rights Watch said. Alternatives might include reparation, community service or participation in national truth-telling processes. In dealing with children, the authorities should focus on rehabilitation rather than punitive measures.

Iraq is responsible for ensuring the safety and basic rights of women and children in its custody. But their home countries’ and other foreign embassies should encourage Iraqi authorities to ensure that all defendants, including the countries’ own nationals, have a fair trial with due process rights and are not sentenced to death.

Iraq should develop a national strategy that prioritizes the credible prosecution of those responsible for the most serious crimes and the international community should support programs to provide alternatives to detention and prosecution, including rehabilitation and reintegration programs for children suspected of ISIS affiliation.

Iraq should prosecute child suspects only as a measure of last resort and with the purpose of any sentence being to rehabilitate and reintegrate the child into society. Those brought by their parents to Iraq should not be prosecuted for illegal entry if they had no choice in the matter. The authorities should also drop prosecutions for children for mere affiliation with ISIS if they did not commit any other crime themselves.

Sentences should be proportionate to the crimes committed. The broad prosecution under terrorism charges of all those affiliated with ISIS in any way, no matter how minimal, could lead to unfair results and ultimately dilute responsibility for the horrible crimes committed by ISIS.

“Under Iraq’s current approach, those who killed for ISIS are basically getting the same sentence as those who simply married ISIS members and had children,” Houry said. “Such an approach does not advance justice nor does it advance victims’ rights. Iraq should change tack.”

Prosecution of Foreign Women
Iraqi criminal proceedings involve a two-stage process. An investigative judge conducts an investigative hearing and then refers the case to trial before a three-judge panel. In the cases monitored by Human Rights Watch of those charged in connection with ISIS crimes, victims of ISIS did not attend trials and played no role in the proceedings.

The trials before the panels that Human Rights Watch attended lasted less than 10 minutes, with the presiding judge asking the defendant the same set of questions about when and how they entered Iraq, where their husband is, if they believe in ISIS ideology, and if they received any money from the extremist group.

Sentences are issued on the same day as the trial. Almost all cases reviewed ended with a life sentence, which in Iraq amounts to 20 years in jail, or the death penalty. Human Rights Watch has not been able to confirm if Iraq has carried out any of the death sentences issued against foreign women.

As required by Iraqi law, the women are represented by a lawyer, who is usually appointed by the court. However, lawyers told Human Rights Watch that they rarely have access to their clients before the hearings. Some said they did not have access to the evidence against them. In all trials that Human Rights Watch attended, the role of the lawyer was marginal and in no case did the lawyer’s arguments or evidence appear to have an impact on the outcome.

The presence of translators is required under Iraqi law if the defendants do not speak Arabic, but the qualifications of the translators varies greatly. Some consulates provide translators when their nationals are being tried. But in other cases, translators are ad hoc. In one trial of a woman from Trinidad and Tobago for which Human Rights Watch received information, the court relied on the translation of a journalist in attendance. In another, the court relied on a local Iraqi man who knew Persian and who happened to be in the courthouse that day on other business. When no translator is available, proceedings are postponed and women are sent back to jail.

In none of the cases Human Rights Watch reviewed or attended did the judge ask the women about specific violent actions or their participation in supporting abuses or violations by ISIS. In all the cases, judges were quickly dismissive of the women’s claims that they had simply followed their husbands, or had been coerced and had not supported or officially joined ISIS. However, in some cases, such claims appear to have swayed the court to impose a life sentence as opposed to the death penalty.

Many relatives of detainees told Human Rights Watch that their relatives had simply followed their husbands, or in some cases were compelled to do so. A Russian woman whose sister is on trial in Iraq said:

My sister’s only fault is that she fell in love when she was just 19. A young silly girl. She didn’t know a thing. She left home, married the man she was in love with, and then, he took her to Syria. He told her that he knew better [than her] and that as his wife, she had to follow him wherever he went. When she first called me she was crying, she wanted out – but she was helpless, she had no documents, nothing. I wanted to come and get her. I tried. But by that time, the border was no longer open.

Human Rights Watch is not in a position to assess the veracity of these claims. However, judges should ensure that the defendants are able to present such evidence at trial. Iraqi authorities have told Human Rights Watch that they do not have the capacity to carry out such investigations but judicial requests for cooperation to these women’s home countries could assist in overcoming logistical challenges.

Prosecution of Foreign Children
In Iraq, children can be held criminally responsible for their actions from the age of 9. Children accused of affiliation with ISIS are tried before the same criminal court reviewing terrorism cases for adults. However, according to a local lawyer, their cases are heard in a chamber within this court that specializes in juvenile justice.

A lawyer who has represented many foreign children accused of terrorism in Iraq summarized the situation:

For children between the ages of 9 and 13, the courts are more lenient, though you can still be prosecuted for illegal entry and in some cases, for membership in ISIS. If you are just prosecuted for illegal entry, your sentence is usually between six months and one year. For membership, you get three to five years. If you are accused of participating in a violent act, like planting a bomb, then you can get between five and 15 years.

He said that Iraq has conducted about 400-500 trials of children accused of affiliation with ISIS, including dozens of cases of foreign children, who are also being charged with illegal entry into the country. Human Rights Watch attended the trials of two children from Azerbaijan, ages 13 and 14. Both were sentenced to six months in jail for entering the country illegally even though they were respectively 10 and 11 when their parents brought them to Iraq and said they had no choice in the matter. The 13-year-old had not seen his mother in five months.

Older children are subject to harsher sentences. An Iraqi court sentenced a 16-year-old German national whose case garnered much media attention, to six years in jail – five years for ISIS membership and one year for entering Iraq illegally.

Detention Conditions
Foreign children under age 3 are usually kept in jail with their mothers in often overcrowded cells. Those between 3 and 9 are usually separated from their detained mothers and put in foster institutions run by the Iraqi state. Those between 9 and 18 are held in juvenile detention facilities, a lawyer following the cases told Human Rights Watch. Foreign orphans are kept in local orphanages. Some foreign children have been transferred to their home countries while many others are still waiting to be transferred.

While Human Rights Watch has not been able to visit detention facilities, it received multiple reports about overcrowded conditions at the prisons where the foreign women and children have been held since they surrendered to Iraq forces in August 2017.

Source: hrw.org

BAGHDAD—As Iraq’s fragmented political forces negotiate how to form a new government following last month’s elections, two issues loom large.

Will Iraq’s recent policy of carefully balancing ties with Iran and its rivals, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia—an approach championed by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi—survive in a new political environment?

And will Iraq’s new government be able to take painful steps to jump-start economic reforms, eliminating inefficient subsidies and dismantling corrupt patronage networks that stifle development?

The May 12 election dealt a major setback to Mr. Abadi, whose Nasr coalition came in third in the number of parliament seats. It fell behind the Sairun bloc of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who campaigned on a nationalist platform opposed to interference by Iran and the U.S., and the Fateh bloc dominated by pro-Iranian Shiite militias.

With challenges to election results before Iraq’s Supreme Court and a possible recount, it will take at best two months—and possibly as long as six months—for the new administration to be formed, Iraqi politicians say. It is far from certain that Mr. Abadi, despite his successes in winning the war on Islamic State, will retain the job he has held since 2014. In part that is because of his poor electoral showing and in part because of widespread resentment about the fact that his Dawa party has occupied Iraq’s top executive position since 2005.

Yet, the nature of Iraq’s political makeup—and its geopolitical position—is such that Mr. Abadi’s legacy of improving ties with Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the U.S. while containing Iran’s still formidable influence, is likely to remain even if he leaves office.

“Had there been no achievement of a positive balance in relations with other countries, Iraq would not have been able to defeat ISIS,” said Abdelhussein al-Mosawi, a lawmaker and secretary general of the Fadhila party, a member of Mr. Abadi’s bloc. “No future government would be able to stray away from that balance.”

The head of Mr. Sadr’s political bureau, Dhiaa al-Assadi, embraced a similar view. “We want good relations with all regional countries, but we don’t want them to influence our political decision-making,” Mr. Assadi said. “If Iran is not on good terms with Saudi Arabia, why should we not have good relations with Saudi Arabia? It’s not the Iranian position that should guide our relationship with another country. And if Saudi Arabia is not on good terms with Turkey, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have a good relationship with Turkey. Iraqi interests should come first.”

A key political development this week was Mr. Sadr announcing a surprise alliance with the Fateh bloc dominated by Shiite militias—a joining of forces that, despite disagreements on key issues such as relations with Iran, are simply too strong to remain outside government.

“This coalition will act as a safety valve for Iraq,” said Razaq al-Haidari, a prominent lawmaker with Fateh. “It ends the accusations of negative foreign intervention in Iraqi affairs. We don’t deny that Fateh has strong ties with Iran and that Sairun is welcomed by Saudi Arabia and other Arab sides. This is a healthy sign. This coalition will become the basis of a broader coalition.”

Other likely members of this nascent coalition are the centrist Hikma bloc of moderate Shiite cleric Ammar al-Hakim and the mostly Sunni Wataniya coalition led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, as well as some Kurdish parties.

“We believe in setting up an Iraqi government in the way that protects Iraq from all regional and international conflicts, making it immune from the hostility between the U.S. and Iran, or between Iran and Saudi Arabia,” said Fadi al-Shimmari, a member of Hikma’s political bureau and its senior negotiator in these coalition talks. “And we are very keen to involve Fateh because it is a military power on the ground, and we believe that this power should be fused into government security forces.”

The problem of Iraq’s post-2003 political setup, of course, is that every party always wanted to be part of the government, enjoying the patronage system that comes with controlling a ministry or a province. No significant political force in the outgoing parliament performed the functions of an opposition.

Mr. Sadr, among others, campaigned on the idea that a new Iraqi government should have a clearly defined ruling majority and a clear opposition. That is something that Fateh officials also back.

 “We would like to abolish the quota system,” Mr. Assadi said. “Parties were dividing the branches of government along ethnic and sectarian lines. We would like the cabinet to be built on professionalism, on a technocratic basis.”

So far, at least, it seems that the main political force that’s likely to end up in opposition is the State of Law bloc of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who once sent Iraqi forces to oust Mr. Sadr’s militias from the southern city of Basra, and who is seen by many Iraqis as responsible for unleashing the sectarian tensions that led to the emergence of Islamic State in 2014.

Still, the question for many Iraqis is whether excluding major forces from power could end up destabilizing the country given their ability to provoke unrest—and whether such an approach would hasten or, instead, hamper reforms.

Mr. Mosawi of Mr. Abadi’s bloc argued that the challenges ahead mean that the new government should be as inclusive as possible. “It will need to adopt difficult economic decisions, and so it will need support from the street,” he said.

Other Iraqi politicians disagree. If the current system of political quotas and patronage networks isn’t replaced with a competent, technocratic administration that starts delivering services soon, a political cataclysm may become unavoidable, warned Mr. Shimmari.

“Iraqi people are fed up,” he said. “It is very possible that if we keep coming up with old solutions, we will have a political revolution on our hands.”

Source: WSJ

Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr called on Friday for a nationwide disarmament campaign and announced his Baghdad stronghold would be first to disarm just two days after an ammunitions cache exploded there and killed 18 people.

Sadr, whose political bloc won Iraq’s parliamentary election in May, called on all armed groups to hand in their weapons to the government and declared Baghdad’s Sadr City district would be a weapons-free area later this month.

“Everyone must obey the orders and not stand in the way of this initiative. Everyone should hand over their weapons without any discussion because the blood of Iraqis is more valuable to us than anything else,” he told his supporters in a statement.

The move appeared to be aimed at easing tensions between Sadr and the government.

At least 18 people were killed and over 90 wounded as a result of the detonation of an ammunitions cache in Sadr City just hours after parliament mandated a nationwide recount of votes for the May election, a measure rejected by Sadr’s bloc.

Sadr had urged his followers to remain calm after the explosion and ordered his office to investigate the incident.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, whose bloc came in third, said storing ammunition in a residential area was a crime and ordered the Interior Ministry to investigate the incident and take legal action against those who had done so.

Some of Sadr’s political opponents had suggested the ammunitions cache belonged to his Saraya al-Salam (Peace Companies) militia.

The Interior Ministry released a statement on Friday thanking Sadr for his announcement.

Sadr, a nationalist who opposes the involvement of both the United States and Iran, scored a surprise victory in the May 12 vote by promising to fight corruption and improve services.

Parliament passed a law on Wednesday ordering a nationwide manual recount of votes in the election, after Abadi cited serious violations.

The move could undermine Sadr, who has in the past mobilised tens of thousands of followers to protest against government policies. One of his top aides expressed concerns that some parties were trying to sabotage the cleric’s victory.

Sadr has always been seen as a wildcard in Iraq’s turbulent politics, which is often driven by sectarian interests.

His militia, previously known as the Mehdi Army, staged two violent uprisings against US occupation forces after the invasion. Iraqi and US officials described him at the time as the biggest security threat in Iraq.

source: Middle East Monitor

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Two homemade bombs targeted the headquarters of the Iraqi Communist Party, which is part of an alliance with cleric Moqtada al-Sadr that won Iraq’s parliamentary election, a party official and security sources said.

The explosive devices were hurled into the garden of the building in Baghdad on Friday and did not cause any casualties, said Jassim Helfi, a senior member of the party.

He described the incident as a message from those opposed to the Sairoon bloc’s calls for reforms in Iraq. Sairoon has promised to end corruption and foreign interference in Iraq’s affairs.

Sadr scored a surprise victory in the election by promising better services and tapping growing resentment with Iran and what voters say is its support for a corrupt political elite.

The cleric himself cannot become prime minister because he did not run in the election, though his bloc’s victory puts him in a position to have a strong say in negotiations on forming a new government.

Sadr reached out to dispossessed Shi’ites and marginalized Sunnis, and restored links with Sunni neighbours while keeping Iran at bay.

The nationalist cleric’s success could be a setback for Iran, which has steadily increased its influence in Iraq – its most important ally in the Middle East – since a U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Before the election, Iran publicly stated it would not allow Sadr’s bloc to govern in Iraq, with which it shares a border.

Source: Euronews

Are Iraq's Communists on the rise again? Wednesday, 23 May 2018 22:26

It can only be regarded as a remarkable comeback. Communists, after decades in Iraq’s political wilderness, have formed an unexpected alliance with populist Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr, who swept to victory in the country’s parliamentary elections.

The electoral commission announced that the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) had attained just two seats in parliament. But, crucially, their coalition with Mr Al Sadr's Marching Towards Reform bloc (Sairoun) may give them a voice in the next government.

Forty-four year old Sadr and his coalition partners were able to capitalise on public resentment over the current administration’s failure to improve basic services, fight sectarianism and sideline foreign interference.

They won a total of 54 seats in the 329-seat parliament and, for all of their differences, are united on the positions of non-interference in Iraq’s internal affairs, social justice and the battle against corruption.

"The Communists echo the widely held rejection of the governing system of the past 15 years and stand for a reformist, anti-corruption, anti-apportionment platform,” Fanar Haddad, senior research fellow at Singapore University, said.

“Of course, these are positions, not policies, and it is unclear how these positions can be realised in an actual reform agenda,” Mr Haddad told The National.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the influence of Communists diminished in the region. Many Iraqis believed the party was driven more by ideologies that were attractive in theory but were ultimately far from reality.

At their peak in the 1940s under the command of Yusuf Salman Yusuf, also known as Comrade Fahad, the ICP’s influence increased in the country.

But the anti-Communist crackdown by the police, which led to the 1958 revolution that overthrew the monarchy, meant the party had to work discreetly.

At the time, the Iraqi state at the time was shaken by popular uprisings against the imposition of the British mandate.

Since its establishment in 1934, the ICP played a key role in supporting the revolutions by vowing to combat colonialism but its aspirations were short lived by the rise of the Baath Party in the early 1970s.

It was only after the US-led invasion in 2003 that toppled former dictator Saddam Hussein that the ICP was able to re-emerge in Iraqi politics.

Unexpected alliances

Reports circulated that secular lawmakers refused to join forces with the Sadrists as they found difficulties in finding common ground, some even said it was near impossible for religious and secular groups to align.

But the ICP and Sadrists were able to find common ground in social justice and populist protests against government austerity. The Communists realised it had to accept that only a popular leader could bring radical political changes to the country.

Analysts say the ICP’s decision to align with the cleric was decision based on pragmatic considerations.

“They found that they had not been able to have any impact institutionally in Iraq’s political system, so they found common ground with Mr Al Sadr who has been advocating for the same things as them,” Renad Mansour, senior research fellow at Chatham House said.

Mr Al Sadr, known for leading the Mehdi army, an armed militia group which led an insurgency against US troops, has reinvented himself as a populist preacher who has held a firm position against foreign interventions in Iraq.

While he is unlikely to become prime minister, he will, however, command a significant number of seats and has already begun informal talks about government formation.

Raad Fahmi, the ICP's secretary general, said there had been suspicions and apprehensions from some of its members about joining forces with Mr Al Sadr.

“Actions speak louder than words. He’s not the same Moqtada Al Sadr,” Mr Fahmi said.

Mr Al Sadr’s Mehdi army was declared by the Pentagon in 2007 as the group that replaced Al Qaeda in Iraq and the most dangerous “accelerant of potentially self-sustaining sectarian violence”.

The army was accused of targeting Sunnis in Baghdad and for carrying out assignations around the country. They also clashed violently with Iranian-backed Badr organisation, which controls Iraq’s interior ministry and is led by Hadi Al Ameri.

Mr Al Sadr fled to Iran later in 2007 to become an Ayatollah at a Shiite religious centre in the central Iranian city of Qom.

Upon his return to Iraq, he managed to mobilize a support base that ended with mass protests in Baghdad. They demanded better public services and transparency in government.

There were fears that it would be difficult for non-Sadrists to avoid being swamped by his power, assets and organisational abilities.

“It is more likely that the lion’s share of Sairoun’s electoral gains are from the Sadrist component. In other words, Sairoun needs the Sadrists a lot more than the other way around,” Mr Haddad said.

Although the once-forgotten Communists may have little influence over the next Iraqi government’s policies, Mr Al Sadr’s March Towards Reform bloc has once again brought them back into the spotlight.

Source: The National

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The United States has contacted members of a political bloc headed by former foe Moqtada al-Sadr after his parliamentary election victory put the Shi’ite cleric in a strong position to influence the formation of a new government, a top aide said.

Sadr’s surprise win puts Washington in an awkward position. His Mehdi Army militia staged violent uprisings against U.S. troops after Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003.

If Sadr has a strong say in picking a new prime minister, the United States may have to work with him to safeguard its interests in Iraq, one of its most important Arab allies, which also has close ties to Iran.

Dhiaa al-Asadi, a top Sadr aide, said there had been no direct talks with the Americans but intermediaries had been used to open channels with members of his Sairoon alliance.

“They asked what the position of the Sadrist movement will be when they come to power. Are they going to reinvent or invoke the Mahdi Army or reemploy them? Are they going to attack American forces in Iraq,” he told Reuters.

“There’s no return to square one. We are not intending on having any military force other than the official military force, police forces and security forces.”

The United States is believed to have some 7,000 troops in Iraq now, though the Pentagon has only acknowledged 5,200 troops. They are mostly training and advising Iraqi forces.

Washington and Sadr, an Iraqi nationalist, are both opposed to Iran’s deep influence in Iraq, where it arms, trains and funds Shi’ite militias and nurtures close ties with many politicians.

 

Sadr made his surprise comeback by tapping popular resentment toward Iran and what some voters say is a corrupt political elite in Baghdad that it backs.

IRAN UNDER U.S. PRESSURE

The United States has threatened “the strongest sanctions in history” against Iran unless it makes sweeping changes, including dropping its nuclear program and pulling out of the Syrian civil war.

That will likely prompt Tehran to defend its interests fiercely in Iraq, where it vies with Washington for influence.

Sairoon extended an invitation to the Iranian ambassador in Baghdad to attend a meeting of senior diplomats last week. The envoy apologized and said he could not make it, said Asadi.

Sadr has been meeting the leaders of several blocs and setting conditions on his support for candidates for prime minister. He says he wants someone who rejects sectarianism, foreign interference and corruption in Iraq.

 

Sadr will not become premier as he did not run in the election.

His attempts to shape any future government could be undermined by Iran, which has skillfully manipulated Iraqi politics in its favor in the past.

Just days after election results were announced, Qassem Soleimani, head of the foreign operations branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, arrived in Baghdad to meet politicians.

“Soleimani came to weaken the blocs. He is working to break down the alliances,” said an adviser to Iraq’s government.

An Iraqi former senior official said Sadr would try to outfox Iran, but added that Tehran would not tolerate any threats to Shi’ite allies who have sidelined Sadr for years.

“There are limits on how far he can go. At the end they (the Iranians) can control him. They give him a lot of room to maneuver... But eventually, when he challenges the Shi’ites and their interests, I think they will be very tough. They (the Iranians) have very many tools to undermine him.”

Sadr’s bloc has not ruled out forming a coalition with the bloc headed by Iran’s strongest ally, paramilitary leader Hadi al-Amiri, as long as he abandons what Asadi says are sectarian policies and becomes an Iraqi nationalist.

“We did not have an official meeting with them (the Iranians). Sometimes we receive some calls that are related to what’s going on. But this cannot be considered a meeting or a discussion over any issue,” said Asadi.

The election dealt a blow to incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, whose Victory Alliance came in third. But Western diplomats and analysts say Abadi, a British-educated engineer, still has cards to play.

He appears to be emerging as a compromise candidate palatable to all sides because he has managed the competing interests of the United States and Iran - inadvertent allies in the war against Islamic State - during his term in office.

“As of yet, no one has yet emerged as an alternative, not in a serious way,” said Ali al-Mawlawi, head of research at Baghdad-based Al-Bayan think-tank.

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s Muqtada al-Sadr, the maverick Shiite cleric whose political coalition beat out Iran’s favored candidates to come in first in national elections, says he wants to form a government that puts Iraqis first.

The electoral commission announced early Saturday that the militant-turned-populist preacher, who has long spoken out against both Iranian and U.S. influence in Iraq, had defeated his establishment rivals.

Al-Sadr — who is remembered for leading an insurgency against U.S. forces after the 2003 invasion — did not run for a seat himself and is unlikely to become prime minister, but will command a significant number of seats and has already begun informal talks about government formation.

Salah al-Obeidi, a spokesman for al-Sadr’s Sa’eroun political bloc, told The Associated Press that Iraq’s sovereignty was going to be the new government’s “guiding principle.”

“We warn any other country that wants to involve itself in Iraqi politics not to cross the Iraqi people,” he said.

However, even as al-Sadr is in position to nominate a prime minister and set the political agenda for the next four years, he will find his choices limited by Iran.

The Middle East’s pre-eminent Shiite power has a direct line with some of Iraq’s most powerful politicians, and it is trying to rally them as a bloc to undercut al-Sadr.

Al-Sadr’s rise threatens Iran’s claim to speak on behalf of Iraq’s Shiite majority, a precedent that could fuel independent Shiite movements elsewhere. Also at stake are top ministerial posts — political appointments that are a source of patronage and police and military power.

Al-Sadr himself has kept a relatively low public profile. But in a public relations move that appeared to be directed at Iran, he appeared on Thursday with rival cleric Ammar al-Hakim, who has drifted away from Iran’s orbit in recent years, to say the two men share similar visions for the next government.

Tehran has dispatched its top regional military commander, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, to pull together a coalition to counterbalance al-Sadr, according to an Iraqi Shiite militia commander who is familiar with the meetings.

“Iran won’t accept the creation of a Shiite bloc that is a threat to its interests. It’s a red line,” said the commander, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions.

Al-Sadr’s relationship with Iran is a complicated one. Though he has maintained close ties with Iran’s political and religious leadership, in recent years he has denounced the flow of Iranian munitions to Shiite militias in Iraq, all the while maintaining his own so-called Peace Brigades in the holy city of Samarra, north of Baghdad.

Al-Sadr’s former Mehdi Army militia, which spearheaded an insurgency against the U.S., clashed violently with the Iran-backed Badr Organization last decade.

The militias plugged the gaps left by Iraq’s army as soldiers deserted their posts in the face of the Islamic State group’s lightning campaign in the summer of 2014. With direction from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, they turned the tide against the initial advance. In the years that followed, the militias — coordinating with U.S.-backed Iraqi ground forces — slowly pushed IS fighters back. Iraq declared victory over the group last year.

Al-Sadr has said he wants the militias absorbed into the national security forces, a move Iran would find difficult to accept.

Iran is also rankled by al-Sadr’s recent overtures to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which are locked in proxy wars with Tehran in Syria and Yemen. Al-Sadr met with the crown princes of Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi in August, leading Iran’s hard-line Keyhan newspaper to accuse al-Sadr of “selling himself” to the house of Saud.

It is unlikely al-Sadr can pull together a governing coalition without Iran-aligned political groups, which have the votes to form their own alliance that could challenge al-Sadr’s right to name a prime minister.

An electoral alliance of the militias called Fatah, headed by Hadi al-Amiri, the commander of the Badr Organization, won just seven seats fewer than al-Sadr’s bloc. Sa’eroun won 54 seats in Iraq’s 329-seat national assembly, a far cry from the 165 required to claim a majority.

The militias control the powerful Interior Ministry in the outgoing government and will expect a similar position of influence in the new one.

Al-Sadr seems inclined to woo incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who is seen as a centrist when it comes to Iranian and U.S. interests, and who appears to be wavering between al-Sadr and al-Amiri.

But Tehran still holds considerable sway with al-Abadi’s al-Nasr bloc, which includes several Iran-aligned figures, including one newly minted deputy who has come under U.S. sanctions for allegedly financing Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.

Iran’s political allies in Iraq will try to pressure those figures into deserting al-Abadi and collapsing an al-Sadr alliance if the formulation is not to Tehran’s liking, said a Western diplomat who has been speaking to the sides involved. The diplomat spoke on the condition of anonymity because of media regulations.

That gives Iran — and al-Abadi — leverage over al-Sadr to moderate his positions on the militias and Iran.

Hanging above the talks is the implied threat by all sides to mobilize their followers — and militias — if they feel they are being shortchanged. The collective effect could be to push al-Sadr’s bloc toward a broader governing coalition that would dilute his reform agenda.

His top showing at the ballot box means the next prime minister will have to introduce a civil service law that al-Sadr has championed as an antidote to Iraq’s endemic corruption, said Kirk Sowell, the publisher of Inside Iraqi Politics, a political and security newsletter. But that doesn’t mean the Cabinet or parliament will sign off on it.

“There’s not going to be a functioning majority,” said Sowell. “It’ll be a hodge-podge, coalition government, and it’s not going to be any more stable than the last one.”

Source: PBS

BAGHDAD — Iraqis are still haunted by memories of black-clad death squads roaming Baghdad neighborhoods a decade ago, cleansing them of Sunnis as the country was convulsed by sectarian violence.

Many of the mass killings in the capital were done in the name of Moktada al-Sadr, a cleric best remembered by Americans for fiery sermons declaring it a holy duty among his Shiite faithful to attack United States forces.

The militia he led was armed with Iranian-supplied weapons, and Mr. Sadr cultivated a strong alliance with leaders in Tehran, who were eager to supplant the American presence in Iraq and play the dominant role in shaping the country’s future.

Now, the man once demonized by the United States as one of the greatest threats to peace and stability in Iraq has come out as the surprise winner of this month’s tight elections, after a startling reinvention into a populist, anticorruption campaigner whose “Iraq First” message appealed to voters across sectarian divides.

 The results have Washington — and Tehran — on edge, as officials in both countries seek to influence what is expected to be a complex and drawn-out battle behind the scenes to build a coalition government. Mr. Sadr’s bloc won 54 seats — the most of any group, but still far short of a majority in Iraq’s 329-seat Parliament.

Even before final results were announced early Saturday, Mr. Sadr — who did not run as a candidate and has ruled himself out as prime minister — had made clear whom he considers natural political allies. At the top of his list is Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, the moderate Shiite leader who has been America’s partner in the fight against the Islamic State and whose political bloc finished third in the vote.

Pointedly absent from Mr. Sadr’s list of potential partners: pro-Iranian blocs, as he has insistently distanced himself from his former patrons in Iran, whose meddling he has come to see as a destabilizing force in Iraq’s politics.

While Mr. Sadr has all the momentum going into negotiations over the governing coalition, there is no guarantee his bloc will be in power. And it is too early to tell what the election may mean for Iraqi stability or American national security goals.

But the upset has clearly weakened the sectarian foundation of Iraq’s political system — and helped transform Mr. Sadr’s image from the paragon of a militant Shiite into an unexpected symbol of reform and Iraqi nationalism.

As the head of the Sairoon Alliance for Reform, Mr. Sadr presides over an unlikely alliance that pairs his pious, largely working-class Shiite base with Sunni business leaders, liberals and Iraqis looking for relief from the country’s long-simmering economic crisis.

For those joining the alliance, it was important to be convinced that Mr. Sadr’s shift from Shiite firebrand to Iraqi patriot was sincere, and likely to last.

Late last year, the cleric began reaching out to groups outside his base with an offer to form a new political movement, and the country’s embattled leftists and secularists — once his staunch enemies — faced a moment of reckoning.

They remembered how a rogue Shariah court he had established passed sentences on fellow Shiites deemed too submissive toward the American occupation of Iraq. And they recalled the countless Iraqis killed in battles between the country’s security forces and Mr. Sadr’s militia. 

But a ragtag group of communists, social democrats and anarchists have come to embrace Mr. Sadr as a symbol of the reform they have championed for years — an image that the cleric has burnished, seeing it as the best path to political power.

“Let me be honest: We had a lot of apprehensions, a lot of suspicions,” said Raad Fahmi, a leader of Iraq’s Communist Party, which is part of Mr. Sadr’s alliance. “But actions speak louder than words. He’s not the same Moktada al-Sadr.”

ISIS Changes Everything

The change in Mr. Sadr was prompted by the political and security crisis set off by the Islamic State’s takeover of large parts of northern and western Iraq in 2014, according to Sheikh Saleh al-Obeidi, Mr. Sadr’s spokesman. The ensuing violence led to an overwhelming shift in the public mood: a feeling that sectarianism was at the root of much of the country’s suffering.

Mr. Sadr, the scion of an eminent clerical family, has portrayed his changed political philosophy in starkly pragmatic terms.

In his only extensive interview before the elections, given to his own television channel, Mr. Sadr put forth a manifesto largely adopted from his new secularist allies. He said his goals were to put professionals — not partisan loyalists — into positions of power as a way to build national institutions that serve the people instead of political insiders.

“We have tried the Islamists and they failed terribly,” Mr. Sadr said, a rebuke that his aides said included his own movement. “So let us try another way in which the independent technocrat or independent Islamist or secular technocrat, whoever is best for the job, takes over a ministry and makes it productive. We should try that.”

Whether Mr. Sadr can succeed with his reform agenda is an open question, said Joost Hiltermann, the director of the International Crisis Group’s Middle East program, as building a majority coalition will mean partnering with some of the established faces that voters expressed dissatisfaction with at the polls. Those other politicians “have much to lose from an effort to curb corruption,” Mr. Hiltermann said.

Source: The New York Times

 

 


 

Regardless of how one chooses to read the outcome of last Saturday’s elections in Iraq, one thing is for sure: Iraqi voters have rejected the status quo and sought fresh political players to take over. Outgoing prime minister Haider Al Abadi, whose Victory List wooed disenchanted Sunni voters as well as Shiites, lost most of his base to two opposing coalitions: An anti-Iran, anti-United States alliance of Islamists, secularists and Communists, led by nationalist Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr, and a pro-Iran list led by the head of the controversial Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), Hadi Al Ameri. The latter spearheaded the fight against Daesh, but his militias were accused of carrying out atrocities against Sunnis in Nineveh and Salahuddin provinces.

Despite low voter turnout and allegations of rigging, especially in the Kurdish provinces, those voting for Al Sadr’s Revolutionaries for Reform Alliance (Al Sairoon) were shunning ethno-sectarian politics and rejecting foreign meddling in Iraqi affairs. It was stunning that his euphoric supporters were calling for the ousting of Iran right in the heart of Baghdad the day after the elections.

Al Sadr, 44, is an enigmatic and maverick leader followed by millions, especially in the impoverished neighbourhoods of Baghdad. His now-disbanded militia had fought the US military following the 2003 invasion. At one point, he had taken refuge in Iran, but returned to defy the divisive politics of pro-Tehran, disgraced former prime minister Nouri Al Maliki. He was among the first leaders to denounce the quota system that had deepened sectarian tensions and sidelined Sunnis, Kurds and minorities. Coming from a revered religious family that had opposed oppression during the Saddam Hussain era, he is now seen as an Iraqi and Arab nationalist who rejects Iranian and US meddling in Iraqi affairs. He had supported Al Maliki’s successor, Al Abadi, who also rejected identity politics, vowed to fight rampant corruption and waged war against Daesh.

Al Sadr’s victory is important. His list came first in Baghdad, which has maximum seats, and at least eight other provinces. Although he says he is not interested in a political position, he is now seen as kingmaker — the person who will decide who will become Iraq’s next prime minister. While he said he will support Al Abadi for a second term, the latter’s poor performance will become a factor. As things stand now, not one list can form a government on its own. The coming weeks will witness intense negotiations and horse trading to form blocs and alliances that can muster enough support on the floor of the parliament and win a confidence vote.

Al Sadr may still back Al Abadi and he is likely to have the support of the Al Hikma movement as well, led by Ammar Al Hakim, a moderate Shiite leader. The three will need the support of Sunni and Kurdish alliances and individuals. If they succeed, then Iraqis will be on the verge of a major departure from the divisive political system installed by the Americans.

But Iran still has allies who will work to derail the emerging political power. Al Ameri, who came in second, has the support of hardline Shiite voters in most southern provinces. Already he is said to be negotiating with Al Maliki and Al Abadi, under the aegis of Iran’s strongman General Qassem Sulaimani, to form a united bloc in parliament. Al Abadi will be risking his legacy if he decides to join hands with Al Ameri and Al Maliki.

Emerging centrist bloc

One major broker in all this will be the head of the Shiite religious (marja) institution in Najaf; Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani. His influence over Iraqi Shiites is considerable and he is likely to back the emerging centrist bloc being set up by Al Sadr and his allies. He had asked voters not to elect those who were tried before and failed.

Al Sadr’s success underlines a new reality in Iraq: That a growing number of Iraqis are tired of sectarian confrontations and want stability, security and economic recovery. Al Maliki’s track record is dismal. Under his watch, Daesh took over 40 per cent of Iraq and was few kilometres from Baghdad. His role in any bloc will be toxic at best. Al Ameri will continue to rely on Iran’s support and he may emerge as the head of the opposition if he fails to form a government.

The US role remains crucial as well. The animosity between Al Sadr and Washington should not overshadow his bloc’s determination to stamp out sectarian divides and set the country on the path of reconstruction. Last year, he had reached out to Saudi Arabia, as did Al Abadi, and both remain Iraq’s best hope at this juncture.

But Iraq remains part of a power struggle between Iran and the US. The latest US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal has heightened regional tensions. What most Iraqis hope for is that their country, emerging from a brutal war against Daesh, will not be sucked into the vortex of regional strife.

Source: Gulf News

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi met with Moqtada al-Sadr on Saturday, less than 24 hours after the Shi’ite cleric’s bloc was declared winner of Iraq’s parliamentary election, the clearest sign yet they could work together to form a coalition.

“During our meeting, we agreed to work together and with other parties to expedite the process of forming a new Iraqi government,” Abadi said at a joint press conference.

“It will be a strong government, capable of providing to its citizens services, security and economic prosperity.”

 Sadr, a long-time adversary of the United States who also opposes Iranian influence in Iraq, cannot become prime minister because he did not run in the election.
 

However, his bloc’s victory puts him in a position to have a strong say in negotiations. His Sairoon electoral list captured 54 parliamentary seats, 12 more than Abadi’s.

“Our door is open to anyone as long as they want to build the nation, and that it be an Iraqi decision,” Sadr said.

A bloc led by Hadi al-Amiri, one of the most powerful figures in Iraq, came in second. Amiri, who leads an umbrella of paramilitary groups, has maintained close ties with Iran for decades.

Before the election, Tehran publicly stated it would not allow Sadr’s bloc to govern close ally Iraq, with which it shares a border. Iran has influenced the choice for prime minister in the past.

Winning the largest number of seats does not automatically guarantee that Sadr will be able to hand-pick a prime minister.

Parties will have to align themselves to try and form a bloc large enough for the parliamentary majority necessary to nominate a candidate. The government should be formed within 90 days of the official results, but negotiations are expected to drag on for months.

The election dealt a blow to Abadi, but he could still emerge as a compromise candidate palatable to all sides because he has managed the competing interests of the United States and Iran - unwitting allies in the war against Islamic State - during his term in office.

In recent days, Sadr also met with Ammar al-Hakim, whose Hikma Movement trailed in seventh place, as well as with ambassadors from Iraq’s neighboring countries including Saudi Arabia, Tehran’s main rival in the Middle East.

 Source:Reuters

Rushed Proceedings, Lack of Due Process, Disproportionate Sentences

(Beirut) – Iraq’s judiciary should change its approach to dealing with detained foreign women and children who are accused of affiliation with the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), Human Rights Watch said today. Since January, Iraq has proceeded with rushed trials against foreigners on charges of illegal entry and membership in or assistance to ISIS without sufficiently taking into account the individual circumstances of each case or guaranteeing suspects a fair trial.

Most foreign women are being sentenced to death or life in prison. The Iraqi justice system is also prosecuting foreign children, ages 9 and up, on similar charges, and sentencing them in some cases with up to five years in prison for ISIS membership and up to 15 years for participating in violent acts.

“Iraq’s ‘one size fits all’ approach to women who traveled to live under ISIS or to children whose parents brought them along is producing unjust outcomes in many instances,” said Nadim Houry, Terrorism/Counterterrorism director at Human Rights Watch. “Iraqi justice should take into account their individual circumstances and actions and give priority to prosecuting the most serious crimes while exploring alternatives for lesser ones.”

Human Rights Watch attended the trials of seven foreign women and three foreign children. Human Rights Watch also spoke with relatives of detainees and some of the lawyers representing them, and reviewed media reports of trials of at least 72 foreign women. The prosecuted women are from a number of countries, including, Turkey, Russia, France, Germany, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Trinidad and Tobago.

Most of the foreign women and children held in Iraq belong to a group of more than 1,300 foreigners detained by Iraqi forces last August during the battle for the ISIS stronghold of Tal Afar in the northwest of Iraq. A security source told AFP news agency that the group was composed of 509 women and 813 children, though the overall number of foreign women and children in detention is believed to be higher based on information from sources close to the penitentiary system in Baghdad.

In September, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi stated in an interview that most of the women and children were not guilty of a crime, and that his government was “in full communication” with their home countries to “find a way to hand them over.” But Iraq appears to have changed its approach and starting in January 2018, proceeded to prosecute women and children ages 9 and up. Meanwhile, the women and children are detained in overcrowded conditions.

A relative of one woman held with her 2-year-old child for months in an airless leaking cell near Mosul with about 25 other women said: “The food they were getting was barely enough to keep them alive. Many were sick but no doctor ever came to see them. One of [her fellow] inmates gave birth right in the cell.”

Despite several requests from Human Rights Watch, Iraq has not issued any statistics about how many trials of foreigners it has conducted.

In accordance with Iraqi law, suspects have access to a defense lawyer and a translator is provided, though in many instances the translator was without any qualification and was chosen from people in attendance. However, opportunities for a meaningful and substantive defense were lacking in the cases reviewed by Human Rights Watch. Lawyers told Human Rights watch that they rarely have access to their clients before the hearings and in the cases monitored, judges were quickly dismissive of the defendants’ arguments, including their claims that they had simply followed their husbands or had been coerced to and had not supported or officially joined ISIS.

Human Rights Watch is not in a position to assess the veracity of these claims and recognizes that some women may have contributed to abuses perpetrated by ISIS. However, judges should ensure that the defendants and their representatives are able to prepare and present all evidence in their defense, including the individual circumstances through which they ended up in Iraq and examine what their contribution was – if any – to ISIS abuses.

The lack of opportunities for a substantive defense, the broad nature of the charges, and the speed with which the trials are conducted, indicate that these trials fall short of fair trial standards. In addition, disproportionately lengthy prison terms may violate the prohibition on cruel and inhuman punishment. Assuming imprisonment is warranted in a particular case, the question of proportionality turns then on the length of the sentence. Prison sentences should take into account the seriousness of the offense and the culpability of the offender.

Membership in an illegal group, especially one responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity, could warrant severe sentences, but in the cases monitored by Human Rights Watch Iraqi authorities did not seem to sufficiently examine what drove a particular person to travel to ISIS territory or the actual role – if any – of these women in the organization. In this context, sentencing women to 20 years in prison or the death penalty merely because they traveled to live under ISIS, married an ISIS fighter, or received a monthly stipend from ISIS for the death of their husband risks violating the principle of proportionality. Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all cases.

Some of the foreign children prosecuted may have been responsible for acts of violence while simultaneously being victims of ISIS themselves. International juvenile justice standards call on national authorities to make efforts to seek alternatives to prosecution, and to prioritize rehabilitative measures with the aim of reintegration of children into society. Authorities should incarcerate children only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period. In 2007, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child found holding children criminally responsible below the age of 12 “not to be internationally acceptable.”

Particularly troubling is Iraq’s approach to children who are only accused of membership in a group like ISIS and not of any specific violent act. In 2016, the UN secretary-general criticized countries that respond to violent extremism by administratively detaining and prosecuting children for their alleged association with such groups. His special representative for children and armed conflict has also stated that child soldiers should not be prosecuted “simply for association with an armed group or for having participated in hostilities.”

The Iraqi authorities should prioritize prosecuting those responsible for the most serious crimes while seeking alternatives to prosecution for those who may have traveled to join or live under ISIS under constraint or who personally harmed no one in Iraq, Human Rights Watch said. Alternatives might include reparation, community service or participation in national truth-telling processes. In dealing with children, the authorities should focus on rehabilitation rather than punitive measures.

Iraq is responsible for ensuring the safety and basic rights of women and children in its custody. But their home countries’ and other foreign embassies should encourage Iraqi authorities to ensure that all defendants, including the countries’ own nationals, have a fair trial with due process rights and are not sentenced to death.

Iraq should develop a national strategy that prioritizes the credible prosecution of those responsible for the most serious crimes and the international community should support programs to provide alternatives to detention and prosecution, including rehabilitation and reintegration programs for children suspected of ISIS affiliation.

Iraq should prosecute child suspects only as a measure of last resort and with the purpose of any sentence being to rehabilitate and reintegrate the child into society. Those brought by their parents to Iraq should not be prosecuted for illegal entry if they had no choice in the matter. The authorities should also drop prosecutions for children for mere affiliation with ISIS if they did not commit any other crime themselves.

Sentences should be proportionate to the crimes committed. The broad prosecution under terrorism charges of all those affiliated with ISIS in any way, no matter how minimal, could lead to unfair results and ultimately dilute responsibility for the horrible crimes committed by ISIS.

“Under Iraq’s current approach, those who killed for ISIS are basically getting the same sentence as those who simply married ISIS members and had children,” Houry said. “Such an approach does not advance justice nor does it advance victims’ rights. Iraq should change tack.”

Prosecution of Foreign Women
Iraqi criminal proceedings involve a two-stage process. An investigative judge conducts an investigative hearing and then refers the case to trial before a three-judge panel. In the cases monitored by Human Rights Watch of those charged in connection with ISIS crimes, victims of ISIS did not attend trials and played no role in the proceedings.

The trials before the panels that Human Rights Watch attended lasted less than 10 minutes, with the presiding judge asking the defendant the same set of questions about when and how they entered Iraq, where their husband is, if they believe in ISIS ideology, and if they received any money from the extremist group.

Sentences are issued on the same day as the trial. Almost all cases reviewed ended with a life sentence, which in Iraq amounts to 20 years in jail, or the death penalty. Human Rights Watch has not been able to confirm if Iraq has carried out any of the death sentences issued against foreign women.

As required by Iraqi law, the women are represented by a lawyer, who is usually appointed by the court. However, lawyers told Human Rights Watch that they rarely have access to their clients before the hearings. Some said they did not have access to the evidence against them. In all trials that Human Rights Watch attended, the role of the lawyer was marginal and in no case did the lawyer’s arguments or evidence appear to have an impact on the outcome.

The presence of translators is required under Iraqi law if the defendants do not speak Arabic, but the qualifications of the translators varies greatly. Some consulates provide translators when their nationals are being tried. But in other cases, translators are ad hoc. In one trial of a woman from Trinidad and Tobago for which Human Rights Watch received information, the court relied on the translation of a journalist in attendance. In another, the court relied on a local Iraqi man who knew Persian and who happened to be in the courthouse that day on other business. When no translator is available, proceedings are postponed and women are sent back to jail.

In none of the cases Human Rights Watch reviewed or attended did the judge ask the women about specific violent actions or their participation in supporting abuses or violations by ISIS. In all the cases, judges were quickly dismissive of the women’s claims that they had simply followed their husbands, or had been coerced and had not supported or officially joined ISIS. However, in some cases, such claims appear to have swayed the court to impose a life sentence as opposed to the death penalty.

Many relatives of detainees told Human Rights Watch that their relatives had simply followed their husbands, or in some cases were compelled to do so. A Russian woman whose sister is on trial in Iraq said:

My sister’s only fault is that she fell in love when she was just 19. A young silly girl. She didn’t know a thing. She left home, married the man she was in love with, and then, he took her to Syria. He told her that he knew better [than her] and that as his wife, she had to follow him wherever he went. When she first called me she was crying, she wanted out – but she was helpless, she had no documents, nothing. I wanted to come and get her. I tried. But by that time, the border was no longer open.

Human Rights Watch is not in a position to assess the veracity of these claims. However, judges should ensure that the defendants are able to present such evidence at trial. Iraqi authorities have told Human Rights Watch that they do not have the capacity to carry out such investigations but judicial requests for cooperation to these women’s home countries could assist in overcoming logistical challenges.

Prosecution of Foreign Children
In Iraq, children can be held criminally responsible for their actions from the age of 9. Children accused of affiliation with ISIS are tried before the same criminal court reviewing terrorism cases for adults. However, according to a local lawyer, their cases are heard in a chamber within this court that specializes in juvenile justice.

A lawyer who has represented many foreign children accused of terrorism in Iraq summarized the situation:

For children between the ages of 9 and 13, the courts are more lenient, though you can still be prosecuted for illegal entry and in some cases, for membership in ISIS. If you are just prosecuted for illegal entry, your sentence is usually between six months and one year. For membership, you get three to five years. If you are accused of participating in a violent act, like planting a bomb, then you can get between five and 15 years.

He said that Iraq has conducted about 400-500 trials of children accused of affiliation with ISIS, including dozens of cases of foreign children, who are also being charged with illegal entry into the country. Human Rights Watch attended the trials of two children from Azerbaijan, ages 13 and 14. Both were sentenced to six months in jail for entering the country illegally even though they were respectively 10 and 11 when their parents brought them to Iraq and said they had no choice in the matter. The 13-year-old had not seen his mother in five months.

Older children are subject to harsher sentences. An Iraqi court sentenced a 16-year-old German national whose case garnered much media attention, to six years in jail – five years for ISIS membership and one year for entering Iraq illegally.

Detention Conditions
Foreign children under age 3 are usually kept in jail with their mothers in often overcrowded cells. Those between 3 and 9 are usually separated from their detained mothers and put in foster institutions run by the Iraqi state. Those between 9 and 18 are held in juvenile detention facilities, a lawyer following the cases told Human Rights Watch. Foreign orphans are kept in local orphanages. Some foreign children have been transferred to their home countries while many others are still waiting to be transferred.

While Human Rights Watch has not been able to visit detention facilities, it received multiple reports about overcrowded conditions at the prisons where the foreign women and children have been held since they surrendered to Iraq forces in August 2017.

Source: hrw.org

BAGHDAD—As Iraq’s fragmented political forces negotiate how to form a new government following last month’s elections, two issues loom large.

Will Iraq’s recent policy of carefully balancing ties with Iran and its rivals, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia—an approach championed by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi—survive in a new political environment?

And will Iraq’s new government be able to take painful steps to jump-start economic reforms, eliminating inefficient subsidies and dismantling corrupt patronage networks that stifle development?

The May 12 election dealt a major setback to Mr. Abadi, whose Nasr coalition came in third in the number of parliament seats. It fell behind the Sairun bloc of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who campaigned on a nationalist platform opposed to interference by Iran and the U.S., and the Fateh bloc dominated by pro-Iranian Shiite militias.

With challenges to election results before Iraq’s Supreme Court and a possible recount, it will take at best two months—and possibly as long as six months—for the new administration to be formed, Iraqi politicians say. It is far from certain that Mr. Abadi, despite his successes in winning the war on Islamic State, will retain the job he has held since 2014. In part that is because of his poor electoral showing and in part because of widespread resentment about the fact that his Dawa party has occupied Iraq’s top executive position since 2005.

Yet, the nature of Iraq’s political makeup—and its geopolitical position—is such that Mr. Abadi’s legacy of improving ties with Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the U.S. while containing Iran’s still formidable influence, is likely to remain even if he leaves office.

“Had there been no achievement of a positive balance in relations with other countries, Iraq would not have been able to defeat ISIS,” said Abdelhussein al-Mosawi, a lawmaker and secretary general of the Fadhila party, a member of Mr. Abadi’s bloc. “No future government would be able to stray away from that balance.”

The head of Mr. Sadr’s political bureau, Dhiaa al-Assadi, embraced a similar view. “We want good relations with all regional countries, but we don’t want them to influence our political decision-making,” Mr. Assadi said. “If Iran is not on good terms with Saudi Arabia, why should we not have good relations with Saudi Arabia? It’s not the Iranian position that should guide our relationship with another country. And if Saudi Arabia is not on good terms with Turkey, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have a good relationship with Turkey. Iraqi interests should come first.”

A key political development this week was Mr. Sadr announcing a surprise alliance with the Fateh bloc dominated by Shiite militias—a joining of forces that, despite disagreements on key issues such as relations with Iran, are simply too strong to remain outside government.

“This coalition will act as a safety valve for Iraq,” said Razaq al-Haidari, a prominent lawmaker with Fateh. “It ends the accusations of negative foreign intervention in Iraqi affairs. We don’t deny that Fateh has strong ties with Iran and that Sairun is welcomed by Saudi Arabia and other Arab sides. This is a healthy sign. This coalition will become the basis of a broader coalition.”

Other likely members of this nascent coalition are the centrist Hikma bloc of moderate Shiite cleric Ammar al-Hakim and the mostly Sunni Wataniya coalition led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, as well as some Kurdish parties.

“We believe in setting up an Iraqi government in the way that protects Iraq from all regional and international conflicts, making it immune from the hostility between the U.S. and Iran, or between Iran and Saudi Arabia,” said Fadi al-Shimmari, a member of Hikma’s political bureau and its senior negotiator in these coalition talks. “And we are very keen to involve Fateh because it is a military power on the ground, and we believe that this power should be fused into government security forces.”

The problem of Iraq’s post-2003 political setup, of course, is that every party always wanted to be part of the government, enjoying the patronage system that comes with controlling a ministry or a province. No significant political force in the outgoing parliament performed the functions of an opposition.

Mr. Sadr, among others, campaigned on the idea that a new Iraqi government should have a clearly defined ruling majority and a clear opposition. That is something that Fateh officials also back.

 “We would like to abolish the quota system,” Mr. Assadi said. “Parties were dividing the branches of government along ethnic and sectarian lines. We would like the cabinet to be built on professionalism, on a technocratic basis.”

So far, at least, it seems that the main political force that’s likely to end up in opposition is the State of Law bloc of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who once sent Iraqi forces to oust Mr. Sadr’s militias from the southern city of Basra, and who is seen by many Iraqis as responsible for unleashing the sectarian tensions that led to the emergence of Islamic State in 2014.

Still, the question for many Iraqis is whether excluding major forces from power could end up destabilizing the country given their ability to provoke unrest—and whether such an approach would hasten or, instead, hamper reforms.

Mr. Mosawi of Mr. Abadi’s bloc argued that the challenges ahead mean that the new government should be as inclusive as possible. “It will need to adopt difficult economic decisions, and so it will need support from the street,” he said.

Other Iraqi politicians disagree. If the current system of political quotas and patronage networks isn’t replaced with a competent, technocratic administration that starts delivering services soon, a political cataclysm may become unavoidable, warned Mr. Shimmari.

“Iraqi people are fed up,” he said. “It is very possible that if we keep coming up with old solutions, we will have a political revolution on our hands.”

Source: WSJ

Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr called on Friday for a nationwide disarmament campaign and announced his Baghdad stronghold would be first to disarm just two days after an ammunitions cache exploded there and killed 18 people.

Sadr, whose political bloc won Iraq’s parliamentary election in May, called on all armed groups to hand in their weapons to the government and declared Baghdad’s Sadr City district would be a weapons-free area later this month.

“Everyone must obey the orders and not stand in the way of this initiative. Everyone should hand over their weapons without any discussion because the blood of Iraqis is more valuable to us than anything else,” he told his supporters in a statement.

The move appeared to be aimed at easing tensions between Sadr and the government.

At least 18 people were killed and over 90 wounded as a result of the detonation of an ammunitions cache in Sadr City just hours after parliament mandated a nationwide recount of votes for the May election, a measure rejected by Sadr’s bloc.

Sadr had urged his followers to remain calm after the explosion and ordered his office to investigate the incident.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, whose bloc came in third, said storing ammunition in a residential area was a crime and ordered the Interior Ministry to investigate the incident and take legal action against those who had done so.

Some of Sadr’s political opponents had suggested the ammunitions cache belonged to his Saraya al-Salam (Peace Companies) militia.

The Interior Ministry released a statement on Friday thanking Sadr for his announcement.

Sadr, a nationalist who opposes the involvement of both the United States and Iran, scored a surprise victory in the May 12 vote by promising to fight corruption and improve services.

Parliament passed a law on Wednesday ordering a nationwide manual recount of votes in the election, after Abadi cited serious violations.

The move could undermine Sadr, who has in the past mobilised tens of thousands of followers to protest against government policies. One of his top aides expressed concerns that some parties were trying to sabotage the cleric’s victory.

Sadr has always been seen as a wildcard in Iraq’s turbulent politics, which is often driven by sectarian interests.

His militia, previously known as the Mehdi Army, staged two violent uprisings against US occupation forces after the invasion. Iraqi and US officials described him at the time as the biggest security threat in Iraq.

source: Middle East Monitor

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Two homemade bombs targeted the headquarters of the Iraqi Communist Party, which is part of an alliance with cleric Moqtada al-Sadr that won Iraq’s parliamentary election, a party official and security sources said.

The explosive devices were hurled into the garden of the building in Baghdad on Friday and did not cause any casualties, said Jassim Helfi, a senior member of the party.

He described the incident as a message from those opposed to the Sairoon bloc’s calls for reforms in Iraq. Sairoon has promised to end corruption and foreign interference in Iraq’s affairs.

Sadr scored a surprise victory in the election by promising better services and tapping growing resentment with Iran and what voters say is its support for a corrupt political elite.

The cleric himself cannot become prime minister because he did not run in the election, though his bloc’s victory puts him in a position to have a strong say in negotiations on forming a new government.

Sadr reached out to dispossessed Shi’ites and marginalized Sunnis, and restored links with Sunni neighbours while keeping Iran at bay.

The nationalist cleric’s success could be a setback for Iran, which has steadily increased its influence in Iraq – its most important ally in the Middle East – since a U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Before the election, Iran publicly stated it would not allow Sadr’s bloc to govern in Iraq, with which it shares a border.

Source: Euronews

Are Iraq's Communists on the rise again? Wednesday, 23 May 2018 22:26

It can only be regarded as a remarkable comeback. Communists, after decades in Iraq’s political wilderness, have formed an unexpected alliance with populist Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr, who swept to victory in the country’s parliamentary elections.

The electoral commission announced that the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) had attained just two seats in parliament. But, crucially, their coalition with Mr Al Sadr's Marching Towards Reform bloc (Sairoun) may give them a voice in the next government.

Forty-four year old Sadr and his coalition partners were able to capitalise on public resentment over the current administration’s failure to improve basic services, fight sectarianism and sideline foreign interference.

They won a total of 54 seats in the 329-seat parliament and, for all of their differences, are united on the positions of non-interference in Iraq’s internal affairs, social justice and the battle against corruption.

"The Communists echo the widely held rejection of the governing system of the past 15 years and stand for a reformist, anti-corruption, anti-apportionment platform,” Fanar Haddad, senior research fellow at Singapore University, said.

“Of course, these are positions, not policies, and it is unclear how these positions can be realised in an actual reform agenda,” Mr Haddad told The National.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the influence of Communists diminished in the region. Many Iraqis believed the party was driven more by ideologies that were attractive in theory but were ultimately far from reality.

At their peak in the 1940s under the command of Yusuf Salman Yusuf, also known as Comrade Fahad, the ICP’s influence increased in the country.

But the anti-Communist crackdown by the police, which led to the 1958 revolution that overthrew the monarchy, meant the party had to work discreetly.

At the time, the Iraqi state at the time was shaken by popular uprisings against the imposition of the British mandate.

Since its establishment in 1934, the ICP played a key role in supporting the revolutions by vowing to combat colonialism but its aspirations were short lived by the rise of the Baath Party in the early 1970s.

It was only after the US-led invasion in 2003 that toppled former dictator Saddam Hussein that the ICP was able to re-emerge in Iraqi politics.

Unexpected alliances

Reports circulated that secular lawmakers refused to join forces with the Sadrists as they found difficulties in finding common ground, some even said it was near impossible for religious and secular groups to align.

But the ICP and Sadrists were able to find common ground in social justice and populist protests against government austerity. The Communists realised it had to accept that only a popular leader could bring radical political changes to the country.

Analysts say the ICP’s decision to align with the cleric was decision based on pragmatic considerations.

“They found that they had not been able to have any impact institutionally in Iraq’s political system, so they found common ground with Mr Al Sadr who has been advocating for the same things as them,” Renad Mansour, senior research fellow at Chatham House said.

Mr Al Sadr, known for leading the Mehdi army, an armed militia group which led an insurgency against US troops, has reinvented himself as a populist preacher who has held a firm position against foreign interventions in Iraq.

While he is unlikely to become prime minister, he will, however, command a significant number of seats and has already begun informal talks about government formation.

Raad Fahmi, the ICP's secretary general, said there had been suspicions and apprehensions from some of its members about joining forces with Mr Al Sadr.

“Actions speak louder than words. He’s not the same Moqtada Al Sadr,” Mr Fahmi said.

Mr Al Sadr’s Mehdi army was declared by the Pentagon in 2007 as the group that replaced Al Qaeda in Iraq and the most dangerous “accelerant of potentially self-sustaining sectarian violence”.

The army was accused of targeting Sunnis in Baghdad and for carrying out assignations around the country. They also clashed violently with Iranian-backed Badr organisation, which controls Iraq’s interior ministry and is led by Hadi Al Ameri.

Mr Al Sadr fled to Iran later in 2007 to become an Ayatollah at a Shiite religious centre in the central Iranian city of Qom.

Upon his return to Iraq, he managed to mobilize a support base that ended with mass protests in Baghdad. They demanded better public services and transparency in government.

There were fears that it would be difficult for non-Sadrists to avoid being swamped by his power, assets and organisational abilities.

“It is more likely that the lion’s share of Sairoun’s electoral gains are from the Sadrist component. In other words, Sairoun needs the Sadrists a lot more than the other way around,” Mr Haddad said.

Although the once-forgotten Communists may have little influence over the next Iraqi government’s policies, Mr Al Sadr’s March Towards Reform bloc has once again brought them back into the spotlight.

Source: The National

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The United States has contacted members of a political bloc headed by former foe Moqtada al-Sadr after his parliamentary election victory put the Shi’ite cleric in a strong position to influence the formation of a new government, a top aide said.

Sadr’s surprise win puts Washington in an awkward position. His Mehdi Army militia staged violent uprisings against U.S. troops after Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003.

If Sadr has a strong say in picking a new prime minister, the United States may have to work with him to safeguard its interests in Iraq, one of its most important Arab allies, which also has close ties to Iran.

Dhiaa al-Asadi, a top Sadr aide, said there had been no direct talks with the Americans but intermediaries had been used to open channels with members of his Sairoon alliance.

“They asked what the position of the Sadrist movement will be when they come to power. Are they going to reinvent or invoke the Mahdi Army or reemploy them? Are they going to attack American forces in Iraq,” he told Reuters.

“There’s no return to square one. We are not intending on having any military force other than the official military force, police forces and security forces.”

The United States is believed to have some 7,000 troops in Iraq now, though the Pentagon has only acknowledged 5,200 troops. They are mostly training and advising Iraqi forces.

Washington and Sadr, an Iraqi nationalist, are both opposed to Iran’s deep influence in Iraq, where it arms, trains and funds Shi’ite militias and nurtures close ties with many politicians.

 

Sadr made his surprise comeback by tapping popular resentment toward Iran and what some voters say is a corrupt political elite in Baghdad that it backs.

IRAN UNDER U.S. PRESSURE

The United States has threatened “the strongest sanctions in history” against Iran unless it makes sweeping changes, including dropping its nuclear program and pulling out of the Syrian civil war.

That will likely prompt Tehran to defend its interests fiercely in Iraq, where it vies with Washington for influence.

Sairoon extended an invitation to the Iranian ambassador in Baghdad to attend a meeting of senior diplomats last week. The envoy apologized and said he could not make it, said Asadi.

Sadr has been meeting the leaders of several blocs and setting conditions on his support for candidates for prime minister. He says he wants someone who rejects sectarianism, foreign interference and corruption in Iraq.

 

Sadr will not become premier as he did not run in the election.

His attempts to shape any future government could be undermined by Iran, which has skillfully manipulated Iraqi politics in its favor in the past.

Just days after election results were announced, Qassem Soleimani, head of the foreign operations branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, arrived in Baghdad to meet politicians.

“Soleimani came to weaken the blocs. He is working to break down the alliances,” said an adviser to Iraq’s government.

An Iraqi former senior official said Sadr would try to outfox Iran, but added that Tehran would not tolerate any threats to Shi’ite allies who have sidelined Sadr for years.

“There are limits on how far he can go. At the end they (the Iranians) can control him. They give him a lot of room to maneuver... But eventually, when he challenges the Shi’ites and their interests, I think they will be very tough. They (the Iranians) have very many tools to undermine him.”

Sadr’s bloc has not ruled out forming a coalition with the bloc headed by Iran’s strongest ally, paramilitary leader Hadi al-Amiri, as long as he abandons what Asadi says are sectarian policies and becomes an Iraqi nationalist.

“We did not have an official meeting with them (the Iranians). Sometimes we receive some calls that are related to what’s going on. But this cannot be considered a meeting or a discussion over any issue,” said Asadi.

The election dealt a blow to incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, whose Victory Alliance came in third. But Western diplomats and analysts say Abadi, a British-educated engineer, still has cards to play.

He appears to be emerging as a compromise candidate palatable to all sides because he has managed the competing interests of the United States and Iran - inadvertent allies in the war against Islamic State - during his term in office.

“As of yet, no one has yet emerged as an alternative, not in a serious way,” said Ali al-Mawlawi, head of research at Baghdad-based Al-Bayan think-tank.

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s Muqtada al-Sadr, the maverick Shiite cleric whose political coalition beat out Iran’s favored candidates to come in first in national elections, says he wants to form a government that puts Iraqis first.

The electoral commission announced early Saturday that the militant-turned-populist preacher, who has long spoken out against both Iranian and U.S. influence in Iraq, had defeated his establishment rivals.

Al-Sadr — who is remembered for leading an insurgency against U.S. forces after the 2003 invasion — did not run for a seat himself and is unlikely to become prime minister, but will command a significant number of seats and has already begun informal talks about government formation.

Salah al-Obeidi, a spokesman for al-Sadr’s Sa’eroun political bloc, told The Associated Press that Iraq’s sovereignty was going to be the new government’s “guiding principle.”

“We warn any other country that wants to involve itself in Iraqi politics not to cross the Iraqi people,” he said.

However, even as al-Sadr is in position to nominate a prime minister and set the political agenda for the next four years, he will find his choices limited by Iran.

The Middle East’s pre-eminent Shiite power has a direct line with some of Iraq’s most powerful politicians, and it is trying to rally them as a bloc to undercut al-Sadr.

Al-Sadr’s rise threatens Iran’s claim to speak on behalf of Iraq’s Shiite majority, a precedent that could fuel independent Shiite movements elsewhere. Also at stake are top ministerial posts — political appointments that are a source of patronage and police and military power.

Al-Sadr himself has kept a relatively low public profile. But in a public relations move that appeared to be directed at Iran, he appeared on Thursday with rival cleric Ammar al-Hakim, who has drifted away from Iran’s orbit in recent years, to say the two men share similar visions for the next government.

Tehran has dispatched its top regional military commander, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, to pull together a coalition to counterbalance al-Sadr, according to an Iraqi Shiite militia commander who is familiar with the meetings.

“Iran won’t accept the creation of a Shiite bloc that is a threat to its interests. It’s a red line,” said the commander, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions.

Al-Sadr’s relationship with Iran is a complicated one. Though he has maintained close ties with Iran’s political and religious leadership, in recent years he has denounced the flow of Iranian munitions to Shiite militias in Iraq, all the while maintaining his own so-called Peace Brigades in the holy city of Samarra, north of Baghdad.

Al-Sadr’s former Mehdi Army militia, which spearheaded an insurgency against the U.S., clashed violently with the Iran-backed Badr Organization last decade.

The militias plugged the gaps left by Iraq’s army as soldiers deserted their posts in the face of the Islamic State group’s lightning campaign in the summer of 2014. With direction from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, they turned the tide against the initial advance. In the years that followed, the militias — coordinating with U.S.-backed Iraqi ground forces — slowly pushed IS fighters back. Iraq declared victory over the group last year.

Al-Sadr has said he wants the militias absorbed into the national security forces, a move Iran would find difficult to accept.

Iran is also rankled by al-Sadr’s recent overtures to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which are locked in proxy wars with Tehran in Syria and Yemen. Al-Sadr met with the crown princes of Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi in August, leading Iran’s hard-line Keyhan newspaper to accuse al-Sadr of “selling himself” to the house of Saud.

It is unlikely al-Sadr can pull together a governing coalition without Iran-aligned political groups, which have the votes to form their own alliance that could challenge al-Sadr’s right to name a prime minister.

An electoral alliance of the militias called Fatah, headed by Hadi al-Amiri, the commander of the Badr Organization, won just seven seats fewer than al-Sadr’s bloc. Sa’eroun won 54 seats in Iraq’s 329-seat national assembly, a far cry from the 165 required to claim a majority.

The militias control the powerful Interior Ministry in the outgoing government and will expect a similar position of influence in the new one.

Al-Sadr seems inclined to woo incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who is seen as a centrist when it comes to Iranian and U.S. interests, and who appears to be wavering between al-Sadr and al-Amiri.

But Tehran still holds considerable sway with al-Abadi’s al-Nasr bloc, which includes several Iran-aligned figures, including one newly minted deputy who has come under U.S. sanctions for allegedly financing Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.

Iran’s political allies in Iraq will try to pressure those figures into deserting al-Abadi and collapsing an al-Sadr alliance if the formulation is not to Tehran’s liking, said a Western diplomat who has been speaking to the sides involved. The diplomat spoke on the condition of anonymity because of media regulations.

That gives Iran — and al-Abadi — leverage over al-Sadr to moderate his positions on the militias and Iran.

Hanging above the talks is the implied threat by all sides to mobilize their followers — and militias — if they feel they are being shortchanged. The collective effect could be to push al-Sadr’s bloc toward a broader governing coalition that would dilute his reform agenda.

His top showing at the ballot box means the next prime minister will have to introduce a civil service law that al-Sadr has championed as an antidote to Iraq’s endemic corruption, said Kirk Sowell, the publisher of Inside Iraqi Politics, a political and security newsletter. But that doesn’t mean the Cabinet or parliament will sign off on it.

“There’s not going to be a functioning majority,” said Sowell. “It’ll be a hodge-podge, coalition government, and it’s not going to be any more stable than the last one.”

Source: PBS

BAGHDAD — Iraqis are still haunted by memories of black-clad death squads roaming Baghdad neighborhoods a decade ago, cleansing them of Sunnis as the country was convulsed by sectarian violence.

Many of the mass killings in the capital were done in the name of Moktada al-Sadr, a cleric best remembered by Americans for fiery sermons declaring it a holy duty among his Shiite faithful to attack United States forces.

The militia he led was armed with Iranian-supplied weapons, and Mr. Sadr cultivated a strong alliance with leaders in Tehran, who were eager to supplant the American presence in Iraq and play the dominant role in shaping the country’s future.

Now, the man once demonized by the United States as one of the greatest threats to peace and stability in Iraq has come out as the surprise winner of this month’s tight elections, after a startling reinvention into a populist, anticorruption campaigner whose “Iraq First” message appealed to voters across sectarian divides.

 The results have Washington — and Tehran — on edge, as officials in both countries seek to influence what is expected to be a complex and drawn-out battle behind the scenes to build a coalition government. Mr. Sadr’s bloc won 54 seats — the most of any group, but still far short of a majority in Iraq’s 329-seat Parliament.

Even before final results were announced early Saturday, Mr. Sadr — who did not run as a candidate and has ruled himself out as prime minister — had made clear whom he considers natural political allies. At the top of his list is Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, the moderate Shiite leader who has been America’s partner in the fight against the Islamic State and whose political bloc finished third in the vote.

Pointedly absent from Mr. Sadr’s list of potential partners: pro-Iranian blocs, as he has insistently distanced himself from his former patrons in Iran, whose meddling he has come to see as a destabilizing force in Iraq’s politics.

While Mr. Sadr has all the momentum going into negotiations over the governing coalition, there is no guarantee his bloc will be in power. And it is too early to tell what the election may mean for Iraqi stability or American national security goals.

But the upset has clearly weakened the sectarian foundation of Iraq’s political system — and helped transform Mr. Sadr’s image from the paragon of a militant Shiite into an unexpected symbol of reform and Iraqi nationalism.

As the head of the Sairoon Alliance for Reform, Mr. Sadr presides over an unlikely alliance that pairs his pious, largely working-class Shiite base with Sunni business leaders, liberals and Iraqis looking for relief from the country’s long-simmering economic crisis.

For those joining the alliance, it was important to be convinced that Mr. Sadr’s shift from Shiite firebrand to Iraqi patriot was sincere, and likely to last.

Late last year, the cleric began reaching out to groups outside his base with an offer to form a new political movement, and the country’s embattled leftists and secularists — once his staunch enemies — faced a moment of reckoning.

They remembered how a rogue Shariah court he had established passed sentences on fellow Shiites deemed too submissive toward the American occupation of Iraq. And they recalled the countless Iraqis killed in battles between the country’s security forces and Mr. Sadr’s militia. 

But a ragtag group of communists, social democrats and anarchists have come to embrace Mr. Sadr as a symbol of the reform they have championed for years — an image that the cleric has burnished, seeing it as the best path to political power.

“Let me be honest: We had a lot of apprehensions, a lot of suspicions,” said Raad Fahmi, a leader of Iraq’s Communist Party, which is part of Mr. Sadr’s alliance. “But actions speak louder than words. He’s not the same Moktada al-Sadr.”

ISIS Changes Everything

The change in Mr. Sadr was prompted by the political and security crisis set off by the Islamic State’s takeover of large parts of northern and western Iraq in 2014, according to Sheikh Saleh al-Obeidi, Mr. Sadr’s spokesman. The ensuing violence led to an overwhelming shift in the public mood: a feeling that sectarianism was at the root of much of the country’s suffering.

Mr. Sadr, the scion of an eminent clerical family, has portrayed his changed political philosophy in starkly pragmatic terms.

In his only extensive interview before the elections, given to his own television channel, Mr. Sadr put forth a manifesto largely adopted from his new secularist allies. He said his goals were to put professionals — not partisan loyalists — into positions of power as a way to build national institutions that serve the people instead of political insiders.

“We have tried the Islamists and they failed terribly,” Mr. Sadr said, a rebuke that his aides said included his own movement. “So let us try another way in which the independent technocrat or independent Islamist or secular technocrat, whoever is best for the job, takes over a ministry and makes it productive. We should try that.”

Whether Mr. Sadr can succeed with his reform agenda is an open question, said Joost Hiltermann, the director of the International Crisis Group’s Middle East program, as building a majority coalition will mean partnering with some of the established faces that voters expressed dissatisfaction with at the polls. Those other politicians “have much to lose from an effort to curb corruption,” Mr. Hiltermann said.

Source: The New York Times

 

 


 

Regardless of how one chooses to read the outcome of last Saturday’s elections in Iraq, one thing is for sure: Iraqi voters have rejected the status quo and sought fresh political players to take over. Outgoing prime minister Haider Al Abadi, whose Victory List wooed disenchanted Sunni voters as well as Shiites, lost most of his base to two opposing coalitions: An anti-Iran, anti-United States alliance of Islamists, secularists and Communists, led by nationalist Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr, and a pro-Iran list led by the head of the controversial Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), Hadi Al Ameri. The latter spearheaded the fight against Daesh, but his militias were accused of carrying out atrocities against Sunnis in Nineveh and Salahuddin provinces.

Despite low voter turnout and allegations of rigging, especially in the Kurdish provinces, those voting for Al Sadr’s Revolutionaries for Reform Alliance (Al Sairoon) were shunning ethno-sectarian politics and rejecting foreign meddling in Iraqi affairs. It was stunning that his euphoric supporters were calling for the ousting of Iran right in the heart of Baghdad the day after the elections.

Al Sadr, 44, is an enigmatic and maverick leader followed by millions, especially in the impoverished neighbourhoods of Baghdad. His now-disbanded militia had fought the US military following the 2003 invasion. At one point, he had taken refuge in Iran, but returned to defy the divisive politics of pro-Tehran, disgraced former prime minister Nouri Al Maliki. He was among the first leaders to denounce the quota system that had deepened sectarian tensions and sidelined Sunnis, Kurds and minorities. Coming from a revered religious family that had opposed oppression during the Saddam Hussain era, he is now seen as an Iraqi and Arab nationalist who rejects Iranian and US meddling in Iraqi affairs. He had supported Al Maliki’s successor, Al Abadi, who also rejected identity politics, vowed to fight rampant corruption and waged war against Daesh.

Al Sadr’s victory is important. His list came first in Baghdad, which has maximum seats, and at least eight other provinces. Although he says he is not interested in a political position, he is now seen as kingmaker — the person who will decide who will become Iraq’s next prime minister. While he said he will support Al Abadi for a second term, the latter’s poor performance will become a factor. As things stand now, not one list can form a government on its own. The coming weeks will witness intense negotiations and horse trading to form blocs and alliances that can muster enough support on the floor of the parliament and win a confidence vote.

Al Sadr may still back Al Abadi and he is likely to have the support of the Al Hikma movement as well, led by Ammar Al Hakim, a moderate Shiite leader. The three will need the support of Sunni and Kurdish alliances and individuals. If they succeed, then Iraqis will be on the verge of a major departure from the divisive political system installed by the Americans.

But Iran still has allies who will work to derail the emerging political power. Al Ameri, who came in second, has the support of hardline Shiite voters in most southern provinces. Already he is said to be negotiating with Al Maliki and Al Abadi, under the aegis of Iran’s strongman General Qassem Sulaimani, to form a united bloc in parliament. Al Abadi will be risking his legacy if he decides to join hands with Al Ameri and Al Maliki.

Emerging centrist bloc

One major broker in all this will be the head of the Shiite religious (marja) institution in Najaf; Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani. His influence over Iraqi Shiites is considerable and he is likely to back the emerging centrist bloc being set up by Al Sadr and his allies. He had asked voters not to elect those who were tried before and failed.

Al Sadr’s success underlines a new reality in Iraq: That a growing number of Iraqis are tired of sectarian confrontations and want stability, security and economic recovery. Al Maliki’s track record is dismal. Under his watch, Daesh took over 40 per cent of Iraq and was few kilometres from Baghdad. His role in any bloc will be toxic at best. Al Ameri will continue to rely on Iran’s support and he may emerge as the head of the opposition if he fails to form a government.

The US role remains crucial as well. The animosity between Al Sadr and Washington should not overshadow his bloc’s determination to stamp out sectarian divides and set the country on the path of reconstruction. Last year, he had reached out to Saudi Arabia, as did Al Abadi, and both remain Iraq’s best hope at this juncture.

But Iraq remains part of a power struggle between Iran and the US. The latest US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal has heightened regional tensions. What most Iraqis hope for is that their country, emerging from a brutal war against Daesh, will not be sucked into the vortex of regional strife.

Source: Gulf News

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi met with Moqtada al-Sadr on Saturday, less than 24 hours after the Shi’ite cleric’s bloc was declared winner of Iraq’s parliamentary election, the clearest sign yet they could work together to form a coalition.

“During our meeting, we agreed to work together and with other parties to expedite the process of forming a new Iraqi government,” Abadi said at a joint press conference.

“It will be a strong government, capable of providing to its citizens services, security and economic prosperity.”

 Sadr, a long-time adversary of the United States who also opposes Iranian influence in Iraq, cannot become prime minister because he did not run in the election.
 

However, his bloc’s victory puts him in a position to have a strong say in negotiations. His Sairoon electoral list captured 54 parliamentary seats, 12 more than Abadi’s.

“Our door is open to anyone as long as they want to build the nation, and that it be an Iraqi decision,” Sadr said.

A bloc led by Hadi al-Amiri, one of the most powerful figures in Iraq, came in second. Amiri, who leads an umbrella of paramilitary groups, has maintained close ties with Iran for decades.

Before the election, Tehran publicly stated it would not allow Sadr’s bloc to govern close ally Iraq, with which it shares a border. Iran has influenced the choice for prime minister in the past.

Winning the largest number of seats does not automatically guarantee that Sadr will be able to hand-pick a prime minister.

Parties will have to align themselves to try and form a bloc large enough for the parliamentary majority necessary to nominate a candidate. The government should be formed within 90 days of the official results, but negotiations are expected to drag on for months.

The election dealt a blow to Abadi, but he could still emerge as a compromise candidate palatable to all sides because he has managed the competing interests of the United States and Iran - unwitting allies in the war against Islamic State - during his term in office.

In recent days, Sadr also met with Ammar al-Hakim, whose Hikma Movement trailed in seventh place, as well as with ambassadors from Iraq’s neighboring countries including Saudi Arabia, Tehran’s main rival in the Middle East.

 Source:Reuters

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