Iranian-backed militias in Iraq form political coalition, aim to challenge Baghdad in elections

Iranian-backed militias in Iraq form political coalition, aim to challenge Baghdad in elections

The heads of several powerful Iranian-backed militias in Iraq are banding together to form a Shia political movement, designed specifically to take on the ruling party of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in the country’s upcoming parliamentary elections.


The new Iraqi political faction, dubbed the Mujahedeen Coalition, includes representatives from the Shia-led Badr Organization, Asa‘ib Ahl al-Haq — also known as the Khazali Network — Kata’ib Hezbollah, and other Shia militias that battled the Islamic State, or ISIS, under the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) banner.


Officially established in late November, the new coalition seeks to leverage the militia’s battlefield victories against ISIS over the last three years into political clout within the Iraqi parliament. A successful bid by the Mujahedeen Coalition to secure seats in the country’s legislature could fracture Mr. Abadi’s delicate balance of power inside Iraq, while potentially expanding Iran’s influence in the country.


Baghdad had sought to circumvent the militia’s role in Iraqi politics by banning the participation of armed groups in the country’s parliamentary elections, slated for this year. But many of the representatives in the coalition resigned their posts before joining the political process, skirting Mr. Abadi’s attempts to keep the PMFs out of the country’s governing class.


There are an estimated140,000 registered fighters under the PMF banner in Iraq according to military officials in Baghdad, which constitutes nearly half of the Iraqi army and a quarter of the security forces under the Interior Ministry.


Mr. Abadi federalized the PMFs last year, making them an official member of the Iraqi Security Forces. But prominent Sunni Iraqi lawmakers have questioned the paramilitaries’ loyalty to the country.


Iraqi Vice President Osama al-Nujaifi, the top government official representing the country’s Sunni minority, openly questioned the loyalties of the Shia militias fighting as part of the PMFs.


“They have their own political aspirations, their own [political] agendas … they are very dangerous to the future of Iraq,” Mr. Nujaifi said in November.


Despite concerns over the future role the Shia militias and their Iranian patrons could play in Iraqi politics, coalition spokesman and Secretary General of the Kata’ib Jund al-Imam militia Ahmed al-Asadi said the organization’s goal was simply to field “political figures who will defend the Iraqis in the political process.”


Several militia groups loyal to top Iraqi Shia cleric Ali al-Sistani refused to participate in the PMF's new coalition, Al-Monitor reports. Those groups include the Imam Ali Brigade, the Ali al-Akbar Brigade and the Ansar al-Marjaiya Brigades.


Members of Saraya Al-Salam, the paramilitary wing of influential Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al Sadr, have also declined to participate in the new political coalition. Late last year, Mr. Sadr’s forces agreed to disband its forces and hand over its cache of weapons to the Iraqi government.


It was the first Shia militia and PMF member to lay down its arms in the aftermath of the Islamic State’s defeat in the country.