After the Iranian-backed PMU party lost Iraq’s May 12 general election to the popular cleric Muqtada Sadr, Al Qods chief Gen. Qassem Soleimani did not give up on the object of installing an Iranian puppet government in Baghdad. His first step was to have PMU activists set fire to the big ballot depot in the key Rasafa district of Baghdad on Saturday, June 10. This put a stop to a critical, nationwide manual recount of votes ordered on June 6 by Iraq’s parliament, in the wake of allegations of electoral fraud. Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi said there had been serious violations in the vote for parliament. The fire therefore placed an iron gridlock on the political process that was supposed to install a new parliament and government in Baghdad.
But Soleimani was not done. Early Wednesday, June 13, he succeeded in matchmaking an alliance between the winner, Sadr, who had run for election on an independent populist ticket with Iraq’s Communist Party, and the militia chief Hady al-Amiri, leader of the PMU (Popular Mobilization Units), a federation of pro-Iranian militias. Together, they account for 98 seats in the 329 parliament, which makes their alliance the largest single bloc. The Al Qods chief went on to attract smaller factions, like that of former prime minister Nouri al Maliki and his 25 seats, along with other fringe parties. The Iranian general is after a grouping large enough to choose the next Iraqi prime minister. The incumbent Abadi’s Al Nasr Alliance won a low 39 seats. His future now hangs in the balance.
The al Qods chief’s presence in Baghdad was witnessed hours after the fire. He attended an Iranian embassy iftar party, alongside Mojtaba Khamenei, the supreme leader’s son. Most of the invitees were pro-Iranian politicians, who lost the election, including Shiite militia chief Amiri, fellow PMU leaders and former Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. They were invited to discuss Soleimani’s plan for the formation of a majority bloc for shaping the upcoming government.
The fire, which put paid to Iraq’s momentum toward the democratic government free of Iranian shackles, which was hoped for in Washington, left only three options – none of them good.
- To go along with the election results as officially published. Iran’s fixer Soleimani has meanwhile managed to turn this option to Tehran’s benefit.
- To call a new election – a non-starter, since the outgoing parliament lacks the authority under law to call another vote, while refusing to stand down until the newly-elected house moves in. This was delayed by the recount disaster. The incumbent prime minister therefore stays in office for the time being until this impasse is sorted out.
- To sink into political chaos. The day after the fire, Abadi called it a “plot to harm the nation and its democracy,” and pledged “all necessary measures and an iron fist against those who undermine Iraq’s security.” Other lawmakers repeated allegations of fraud and voter manipulation.
DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources report that the PMU, whose agents set the fire, operates under the direct command of Abu Muhandis, an Iraqi militia commander of Iranian descent who served in its Revolutionary Guards Corps. Muhandis is one of the senior lieutenants of Soleimani. The object of the arson attack was to upend the Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr’s unexpected lead in the general election and disempower him for choosing Iraq’s next prime minister. Tehran had no wish to see this outspoken opponent of Iranian influence in Baghdad in the role of kingmaker. Soleimani nonetheless found a way to neutralize this threat by bringing the independent-minded cleric into an alliance with Iran loyalist Al-Amiri. This turned the pro-Iranian election defeat into a gain and dashed Washington’s hopes of an administration in Baghdad free of Iranian influence.