Analysis

Iraqi Voters Want Weaker Militias and a Stronger State

Election results show citizens want a government that can stand on its own without being propped up by Iran, the United States, or shadowy militias.

By , a journalist focusing on the Middle East and Afghanistan.
Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission conducts a manual recount of votes.
Employees of Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission conduct a manual recount of votes following the parliamentary elections on Oct. 27. AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images

Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) were once heroes to some of the country’s Shiites. That was in 2017, when the PMF—with Iranian backing—helped end the Islamic State’s reign of terror through large parts of the country. Those victories on the battlefield, however, didn’t translate into success at the ballot box this month. The initial results of Iraq’s fifth parliamentary election since 2003 show Iran-backed groups, loosely represented by the Fatah Alliance, losing 28 of the 48 seats they previously held.

A political party backed by a designated terrorist organization in the northern Kurdish region of Iraq also fared poorly. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) had the firm support of the mainly Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which the United States, the European Union, and Turkey have designated a terrorist group. The PUK’s rival, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), emerged the clear victor in the voting: It won 32 seats, twice the PUK’s 16 seats. In the 2018 elections, the KDP won 25 seats and the PUK won 18 seats.

Somewhat predictably, the election’s losing parties have alleged voter fraud. “We do not accept these fabricated results, whatever the cost,” said a statement released by the office of Hadi al-Amiri, leader of the Fatah Alliance. “And we will defend the votes of our candidates and voters with full force.” Sometimes, such allegations were coupled with more specific threats of violence, such as one muqawama (“resistance”) linked commentator remarking during a televised interview that he had “accurate information” that “drones, precision missiles, and ballistic missiles will be launched from the Iraqi soil” at the United Arab Emirates. (Allegations have been made against the UAE for allegedly being part of a conspiracy against Iran-linked groups.)

Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) were once heroes to some of the country’s Shiites. That was in 2017, when the PMF—with Iranian backing—helped end the Islamic State’s reign of terror through large parts of the country. Those victories on the battlefield, however, didn’t translate into success at the ballot box this month. The initial results of Iraq’s fifth parliamentary election since 2003 show Iran-backed groups, loosely represented by the Fatah Alliance, losing 28 of the 48 seats they previously held.

A political party backed by a designated terrorist organization in the northern Kurdish region of Iraq also fared poorly. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) had the firm support of the mainly Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which the United States, the European Union, and Turkey have designated a terrorist group. The PUK’s rival, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), emerged the clear victor in the voting: It won 32 seats, twice the PUK’s 16 seats. In the 2018 elections, the KDP won 25 seats and the PUK won 18 seats.

Somewhat predictably, the election’s losing parties have alleged voter fraud. “We do not accept these fabricated results, whatever the cost,” said a statement released by the office of Hadi al-Amiri, leader of the Fatah Alliance. “And we will defend the votes of our candidates and voters with full force.” Sometimes, such allegations were coupled with more specific threats of violence, such as one muqawama (“resistance”) linked commentator remarking during a televised interview that he had “accurate information” that “drones, precision missiles, and ballistic missiles will be launched from the Iraqi soil” at the United Arab Emirates. (Allegations have been made against the UAE for allegedly being part of a conspiracy against Iran-linked groups.)

But although some election corruption is almost a given in Iraq, setbacks for Iranian-backed outfits were not totally unexpected. They can be partly explained by the fact that the threat posed by the Islamic State, a Sunni jihadi group, has been mostly eliminated. Battle-hardened Shiite radicals who were useful before—necessary, even, to repel the Islamic State—are now widely seen as a hindrance to peaceful progress. Widespread accusations against PMF-linked groups for alleged involvement in the killing and kidnapping of political protesters and independent activists in recent years also played a role.

It seems a significant number of voters now want to move forward, away from an era of violence and dependence on outside powers—including both Iran and the United States—and toward parties that are perceived to have greater loyalty to Iraq. The Oct. 10 vote also seems to have shown the Iraqi population’s clear interest in curbing the power of militia groups from the north to the south that do not answer to the state.

In this sense, the voting could represent an important shift in Iraq’s political landscape.


The brief year and a half that Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has been in office has seen determined attempts to increase investment in the country and soothe regional tensions, including meetings between representatives of long-standing regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia in Baghdad.

However, there is a danger that those seeing their influence wane may continue to resort to violence, including through front groups that enable plausible deniability, since those taking part in the political process now have more of a stake in ensuring the population does not blame them for any civilian casualties resulting from attacks.

The main winner in the election was another Shiite firebrand, Muqtada al-Sadr, a longtime nemesis of the United States. In recent years, the popular cleric has taken several positions counter to those held by the Iran-linked muqawama factions. He claims his bloc, which appears to have won 73 of the parliament’s 329 seats—more than any other group—is dedicated to peaceful development free of external meddling.

Sadr has a large constituency in Baghdad’s poverty-stricken Sadr City, an eastern suburb of the Iraqi capital, and also among Shiites in the impoverished countryside. He presents himself as a defender of the downtrodden. For many years after the 2003 invasion, he was the leader of Jaish al-Mahdi, which resisted U.S. forces and committed atrocities against Sunnis. (Several Iran-linked militias were originally splinter groups from Jaish al-Mahdi.)

In a televised victory speech, Sadr said, “it is time for the people to live in peace, without occupation, terrorism, militias, and kidnapping.”

More recently, Sadr has urged all arms to be brought under state control. In a televised victory speech, he said, “it is time for the people to live in peace, without occupation, terrorism, militias, and kidnapping.”

Unlike in past elections, rallying cries against the U.S. occupation didn’t inspire or motivate voters much, since the occupation is largely over. At the moment, there does not even seem to be a clear spokesperson for the international coalition against the Islamic State; the previous one left last month, and no replacement has been announced.

For Iraqis who regard a limited U.S. presence as a stabilizing factor, however, there is cause for concern. The U.S withdrawal from Afghanistan exacerbated those fears. In recent weeks, some Iraqis have said the Afghan withdrawal was proof that the United States, which still has about 2,500 troops in Iraq, cannot be trusted.

These Iraqis fear uncertainty over the election results could lead to more power wielded by nonstate armed groups as well as undue influence and interference from the country’s eastern neighbor. Many blame not only the Islamic State but also Iran-linked armed groups for the disappearance of thousands of men and boys during the war and do not trust Iran to use any increased sway in a way that could be beneficial to Iraq.

Others fear Iraq may become even more of a battleground for the United States and Iran, with the population suffering the consequences: Accusations of being a “spy” for the Americans or Israelis have often been used as excuses to target activists, for example. The assassination of prominent Iraqi security and terrorism expert Hisham al-Hashimi in July 2020 was preceded by accusations from Iran-linked groups and individuals that he worked on behalf of U.S. intelligence in the country.


Despite the fact that the election was the safest since the 2003 U.S. invasion, voter apathy permeated the whole process. Most Iraqis didn’t vote: Overall turnout was well under 50 percent. Walking the streets the day of the voting, the loud sound of aircraft flying low overhead could be heard, probably intended as a signal to the Iraqi population that they had nothing to fear. Bored policemen yelled out jokingly to passing journalists, including some mild harassment directed at me as I walked alone on one street.

Space was created, however, for relative newcomers to the political scene. These include a party called Imtidad, which is linked to widespread government protests. Those demonstrations—against corruption, unemployment, and poor government services—provoked a violent response by government security forces and Iran-backed militias. But they eventually helped bring the government down.

Imtidad reportedly won nine seats in the election and did especially well in the Dhi Qar region, which experienced some of the most brutal violence against protesters between late 2019 and early 2020. The party hopes to form a coalition with other independents, including a Kurdish group called “the New Generation,” which won nine seats.

There will also be more women in the next Iraqi parliament: A record 97 female lawmakers will be included in the next Council of Representatives, well above the 25 percent quota required by law.

The prevailing trend seems to be a desire to get rid of foreign interference of any kind in Iraqi politics. And as pressure mounts against foreign meddling, Iran-backed militias and the PKK’s Turkish Kurds may now find they have common cause.

Both the Iran-backed groups and the PKK are believed to have been involved in attacks over the past year that killed Iraqi nationals and security forces. They have also grown closer to each other in areas where they share aims—especially in the Sinjar region, which is home to Iraq’s Yazidi minority and experienced some of the worst Islamic State violence.

Sinjar is part of Iraq’s notoriously troublesome territories disputed between the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan region and is along the border with northeastern Syria, where the PKK-linked People’s Protection Units, known as the YPG, operate, and southeastern Turkey, where many PKK fighters cross in and out to conduct attacks.

Iran-linked armed groups, the PKK, and its local allies continue to work side by side in Sinjar and, at times, ignore orders from Baghdad. All would like to continue operating freely in the area and see the KDP-dominated Kurdistan Regional Government as a threat to their ability to bear arms independently—and thus, to their cross-border movement of soldiers and weapons.

The PKK has trained local outfits in Sinjar and has maintained ties with them. The group was supposed to withdraw from the area according to an Oct. 9, 2020, agreement between the governments in Erbil and Baghdad, but a year later, its fighters are still there.

Although much of the Iraqi population wants the rule of law, many simply have ceased to believe the political process will help advance this goal.

Residents that I’ve interviewed in the course of reporting there for six years have repeatedly told me the multitude of armed groups creates instability. It also, notably, results in the fear of speaking out against these armed groups.

Neither the Iran-linked armed groups nor the PKK look kindly on dissent, and unsolved assassinations have been attributed to both. Iran-linked armed groups also want allies to enable them to strike at the KRG, which continues to be closely allied with the United States for historical reasons and due to continued U.S. support for Iraq’s Kurdish population.

Earlier this month, I spoke to Yazidi activist Mirza Dinnayi, whose carefully hedged statements were unclear about who’s responsible for the lack of rule of law in Sinjar. He stressed, however, that Yazidis want to live within a state system with “the rule of law, without being part of any militias.”

Although much of the Iraqi population wants the rule of law, many simply have ceased to believe the political process will help advance this goal. The manifold challenges the next government faces include ensuring it establishes a state monopoly on the use of violence.

To do this, however, it will need to show it can be trusted to stand on its own without undue support from either Washington or Tehran—or from armed groups operating both in the shadows and on the streets.

Shelly Kittleson is a journalist focusing on the Middle East and Afghanistan. Her work has been published in numerous U.S., Italian, and international media outlets.

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