Shiite political and paramilitary groups have called for the withdrawal of the remaining US troops in Iraq as they seek to make electoral gains on the man who helped empower them, Prime Minister Haider Abadi.
The demand by the opposition Al-Fattah alliance is just the latest sign that the Iranian-backed forces who played a key role in the defining achievement of his premiership — the defeat of Daesh in much of the country — are trying to outmaneuver the Iraqi leader before a nationwide vote that will decide his fate this spring.
While the two sides continue to cooperate militarily and there is no suggestion of their political rivalry degenerating into violence, their contest could have far-reaching consequences for Iraq.
Parliamentary elections for the 329-member Council of Representatives are scheduled to be held on May 12. The MPs will then choose Iraq’s prime minister and president, meaning Abadi is fighting for his political career even as he rides a wave of popular support thanks to his victories on the battlefield.
Last week the Al-Fattah alliance submitted a draft resolution to the national assembly calling for the final few thousand American soldiers in Iraq to be withdrawn “as their mission has been achieved.” Although the resolution cannot become legislation under Iraqi law, it is highly symbolic of the precarious position in which Abadi finds himself.
Having built his reputation on the defeat of Daesh, the prime minister is being pressured into making political concessions by the very militias he used to crush the extremists and strengthen his hold on the country.
The resolution calling for the Americans to withdraw is “a typical way to embarrass him,” an MP and Al-Fattah alliance member told Arab News on condition of anonymity. “He is the Americans’ man, so let them protect him.”
A former electrical engineering student who spent several years in exile in the UK during the regime of Saddam Hussein, Abadi is himself a Shiite Muslim. He returned to Iraq after the 2003 US-led invasion and was elected to Parliament less than three years later.
He was appointed prime minister in September 2014 and has had to face down a Kurdish referendum for independence, as well as the Daesh insurgency that swept through Iraq.
The challenge he now faces, however, comes from former allies backed by Iran and their pressure may already be paying off.
On Thursday, the prime minister issued a decree that will allow an assortment of Shiite militias from the Al-Fattah alliance to be formally absorbed into Iraq’s security forces. The move will go some way to appeasing his political opponents, but it is unlikely to silence them entirely with the election just two months away.
The Al-Fattah alliance is made up of some of Iraq’s most powerful paramilitary groups including the Badr Organization and Asai’b Ahl Al-Haq, two groups that played pivotal roles in the bloodshed and sectarian violence that dominated the early years of the US-led occupation.
The Badr Organization has its roots in the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which fought on the side of Tehran in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war. Many of its members joined the Iraqi security forces after the 2003 American invasion.
The Asai’b Ahl Al-Haq is an offshoot of the Iranian-backed Mahdi Army, which fought pitched battles with US troops in the cities of Baghdad and Najaf in 2004.
Last December the US said it had 5,200 troops in Iraq and Abadi has insisted these remaining forces only provide security and logistical support, and are not involved in combat.
Sa’ad Al-Hadaithi, a spokesman for the Iraqi government, told Arab News the country still needed American military help.
“Until the battle with Daesh is resolved on the Syrian side (of the border) and pockets of Daesh militants are eliminated in those areas, we still need the support of the coalition forces,” he said.
The US insists its continued presence in Iraq will be “conditions-based.”
In recent years, it has launched air strikes in aid of Shiite militias fighting Daesh, but the upcoming elections have emboldened the paramilitary groups and their allies in Parliament, giving them the confidence to turn the tables on both Abadi and Washington.
“We are not the only ones who demand the departure of these forces; this decision is consistent with the will of the Iraqi people,” said Mahmoud Al-Rubaiai, a leading member of Al-Fattah.
He added that if the US troops did not leave, “then we will consider them as occupation forces and deal with them on that basis.”