Fragile, crumbling alliances have compromised Iraq's prime minister ahead of May's election

The real story in Iraq is not a battle of visions for the nation but a battle of "victors" to consolidate gains.

Members of the Shiite group Asaib Ahl Al Haq, or League of the Righteous, pictured while fighting ISIL militants in 2015. AP
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Over the past three years, Haider Al Abadi, the Iraqi prime minister, developed a support base for himself inside and outside Iraq. Many of those in his country, including Sunnis, hoped the prime minister would press the reset button on the political and sectarian divisions that shaped much of the politics under the leadership of his predecessor, Nouri Al Maliki.

In western capitals, too, Mr Al Abadi was touted as the counterweight to his predecessor, who continued to position himself for a comeback after he was essentially ousted in the summer of 2014. Many also hoped that Mr Al Abadi’s nationalist and unifying politics could be the antidote to sectarian forces beholden to foreign countries.

The strength of support for him in western capitals, for example, was evidenced recently during the conflict over Kirkuk last October. When he unexpectedly waged an offensive to forcefully bring Kirkuk under the federal government, many policymakers and experts quietly or publicly stood by him against the Kurds in Erbil, the traditional allies of the West. In media and policy circles, he was presented as the saviour of Iraq, despite insufficient signs to substantiate the euphoria.

On the contrary, several signs suggested he was not in fact committed to the kind of deep change many in Iraq desired. The legalisation of the Hashed Al Shaab, or the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), provided protection for the militias without sufficient checks and balances to ensure integration as initially promised. Just before the law was passed, reports had suggested that Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, the clerical authority in Najaf, who helped establish the force through a fatwa, might issue another edict asking the organisation to disband.

The Kirkuk episode was also a sign of the polarisation that followed the Kurdish intention to set up a referendum for independence. Advocates of the prime minister in Washington argued that his invasion of Kirkuk was necessary to pre-empt sectarian forces who could use the polarised situation to undermine him.

His attack of Kirkuk, they suggested, would position him as the nationalist counterbalance to both the sectarian forces and the increasingly dictatorial Kurdish leadership in Erbil. Empower him, in other words, or the sectarian militias would win. And yet, those same militias were heavily involved in the attack and went out of their way to show themselves as the victors, amid denial or deliberate ambiguity in Baghdad and Washington.

However, the clearest sign yet happened over the weekend. The prime minister made a surprising announcement when he revealed his intention to enter the election through an alliance that would include the country's most sectarian forces after ISIL.

Election alliances are still forming and some have already reportedly crumbled. They include the Victory Alliance, announced by the prime minister. Since the weekend, reports have indicated that notorious Iran-backed militias such as Asaib Ahl Al Haq and militia leaders such as Hadi Al Ameri and Qais Al Khazaali have already pulled out.

But the prime minister's botched alliance has already hurt him, exposing his need for support from these forces to win the election. Local media have even suggested that the episode might have been a ploy by Iranian loyalists to undermine his popularity, a take that clearly reflected the profound disappointment many felt after the news came out.

As part of this turn of events, Muqtada Al Sadr, the Shia extremist-turned-moderate cleric, denounced Mr Al Abadi’s move as “astonishing” and said it marked the end of “patriotism, reform and anti-sectarianism”, for which the prime minister is known to be a strong advocate. He described the alliance as “hateful political agreements and sectarian realignments”. The cleric said he would instead align himself with “independent technocrats” who would work to strengthen “the new Iraqi state”, a function many thought Mr Al Abadi would serve.

Observers expect that the prime minister’s conciliatory rhetoric will be demonstrated in the election, when he runs as national leader against the likes of Mr Al Maliki, whose politics helped plunge the country into chaos before he was replaced. Remarkably, even though some of the forces he had agreed to align with are the unmistakeable faces of sectarianism in the country, Mr Al Abadi described the coalition as “cross-sectarian”, which speaks to his view of such groups, contrary to how his advocates in the West have depicted his politics over the past few years.

A key takeaway from the latest developments should be for observers to revisit their framework of the politics in Baghdad today. The real story is not a battle of visions for Iraq as a nation, symbolised by the rivalry between Mr Al Abadi and Mr Al Maliki. The common framework misses the mark. Instead, the real theme in the upcoming election is simply a divergence among "victors” over how to consolidate the gains they have made over the past three years. It is a battle of victors, not a battle of politicians seeking a better national vision.

This dynamic could be discerned in conversations taking place in recent years. Shia politicians believe politics has tilted more favourably than ever towards them and that they should thus enshrine these gains in a new order in Baghdad. This new dynamic includes the philosophy that the traditional Sunni political class placed its bets on the rise of ISIL in 2014 to negotiate a better deal for itself and lost the bet.

Subsequently, the new thinking goes, victors should align themselves with a new Sunni political class, consisting of those who worked under the PMU and the government and accepted their rule and then exclude the rest. Mr Al Maliki made this point in a television interview he made in November 2016.

The latest developments undermine the view in Washington that Mr Al Abadi is a bulwark against sectarian forces with strong links to Iran. It dispels myths created in western capitals about what the prime minister is capable of or even ready to do differently and more meaningfully than his predecessor.

More importantly, it casts a shadow over the prospect of change that an untold number of Iraqis hoped the prime minister would bring them.

Hassan Hassan is co-author of the New York Times bestseller ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror and a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, Washington DC