Iraq’s paramilitary militias announced the establishment of one of the biggest political blocs to run in the country’s upcoming general elections as the registration of electoral coalitions closed on Thursday.
"The establishment of Al Fatih coalition comprises of Al Badr Organisation, Asaib Ahl Al Haq, Harakat Hizbollah Al Nujaba and others," said Hadi Al Ameri, leader of Al Badr Organisation.
The militias are part of the Hashed Al Shaabi, also known as the Popular Mobilisation Units or Popular Mobilisation Forces, which was formed in 2014 after after Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, Iraq's top Shiite cleric, urged citizens to take up arms against ISIL militants who had swept aside government forces and seized control of much of northern Iraq. Its component militias are mostly trained and supported by Iran and remain deeply divisive, with some accused of abuses against civilians.
With ISIL defeated last year, the future role of the militias has become one of the central government's main challenges as many Iraqis have voiced concerns over the participation of pro-Iranian movements in the elections.
Mr Al Ameri's Badr Organisation was built “as a military force by the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to fight against Iraq’s former president Saddam Hussein” in the Iran-Iraq War, according to Michael Knights, Iraq analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
After Saddam was overthrown in the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq and his armed forces disbanded, "Badr placed its fighters in the new Iraqi security forces (ISF), exploiting the US-led coalition's desperate need to rebuild the military", Mr Knights wrote in a report last year titled Tehran seeks to consolidate power in Iraq in 2018.
In November, Iraqi prime minister Haider Al Abadi banned militia leaders from running in the elections, saying there should be a “clear separation between political and armed groups”. Many militia leaders subsequently formally resigned from positions in the armed groups.
Mr Al Abadi, who was a member of the State of Law coalition headed by vice president Nouri Al Maliki, formed his own bloc called Al Nasr, or victory, to contest the election.
“A number of candidates and coalitions have shown interest in joining the bloc, including volunteers who fought against ISIL,” said Haider Hamada, head of the prime minister’s media office.
Mr Al Abadi requested that candidates in his new bloc must not "inflict or impose policies on to their governmental positions " and must come from professional backgrounds, Mr Hamada said.
While Mr Al Maliki will lead the State of Law coalition, which includes his Islamic Dawa party, in the election, another vice president, Ayad Allawi, was in talks with parliamentary speaker Salem Al Jubouri and other Sunni figures about forming a coalition.
Meanwhile, three of the Kurdistan region's opposition parties aligned to form a political bloc called Nishtiman, meaning "homeland".
The Kurdish Change movement (also known as Gorran), the Kurdistan Islamic Group (Komal) and the Coalition for Democracy and Justice (CDJ) will field a joint list in Kirkuk and other disputed areas that the Kurds claim should be part of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region.
Mr Al Abadi on Tuesday said the election would be held on May 12 as scheduled, despite pressure from several parliamentary groups for a delay of at least six months as the country recovers from widespread destruction and mass displacement caused by the war against ISIL.
Among the groups pressing for a postponement are the Alliance of Iraqi Forces, the Union of Sunni Forces, the State of Law coalition and Kurdish parties. The Alliance of Iraqi Forces, the largest Sunni bloc, warned on Tuesday that "holding the elections will represent a military coup".
Raad Al Dahlaki, a senior member, said the central government had "not fulfilled the requirements for holding fair elections, which include the return of refugees to their hometowns and cities".
According to Iraqi law, citizens must vote from the province where they are registered as voters.