Are Iraq's Communists on the rise again?

Moqtada Al Sadr's controversial alliance has brought them back into the spotlight

A supporter of the Iraqi Communist Party holds the communist symbol of the hammer and sickle during a march celebrating the International Workers Day in the Iraqi capital  Baghdad on May 1, 2018.  / AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE
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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.


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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.