Iraqis vote to restrain armed groups

In the wake of Iraq’s parliamentary election, European states should be highly cautious about publicly engaging with Iraqi policy on armed groups. They should only help Baghdad deal with this issue following a direct request.

Supporters of Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr take to the streets to celebrate in Baghdad’s Tahrir square on October 11, 2021 following the announcement of the parliamentary elections’ result
Image by Ayman Yaqoob

Preliminary results from Iraq’s parliamentary election reflect a growing desire among Iraqi citizens to exert greater state control over the armed groups that have proliferated in the country since the 2014 war against the Islamic State group (ISIS). Although the next government will not end all the illegal activities of Iraq’s armed groups, it is well-positioned to take small steps towards restraining them. This will be a highly sensitive process – one that European states should only engage with following a direct request for support from the Iraqi government.

The Sadrist bloc, led by influential cleric and politician Muqtada al-Sadr, won the greatest share of seats in the new parliament. In recent years, Sadr has strongly denounced the unchecked power of armed groups and called for weapons to only be in the hands of the state. The State of Law coalition significantly increased its share of the vote – as its leader, former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, evoked his erstwhile image as a strongman and touted his coalition’s ability to restore state control of armed groups. The Imtidad party, a group born in the protest movement that swept Iraq in 2019 and 2020, performed surprisingly well in the election. This was partly due to its vigorous criticism of the campaign of violence armed groups mounted against Iraqi activists and demonstrators. Meanwhile, the Fatah coalition, the political force most closely associated with armed groups, lost a significant number of seats. Huqoq, a new party that represents one of the most radical armed groups, only gained one seat. A multitude of factors, including parties’ differing abilities to maximise gains under the new electoral law, contributed to these election outcomes. But the public discourse and election campaigns of key parties suggest that there is broad support for reigning in armed groups.

The Sadrist bloc is well-placed to lead an effort to restrain armed groups, because it is widely perceived as an Iraqi nationalist organisation that eschews close relationships with Western states. As the victory of the Sadrist bloc became clear after the election, Sadr reaffirmed his commitment to state control of the use of weapons. Although Sadr commands his own armed group, Saraya al-Salam, he has long criticised the undisciplined behaviour of armed groups, including those formally affiliated with the Iraqi state.

Dozens of armed groups that fought against ISIS in Iraq became Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs) and part of the Iraqi state – securing salaries and weapons from the Iraqi government but not always adhering to its command and control structure. Sadr has differentiated between “good” and “bad” PMU elements, calling for the prosecution of abusive factions. He declared that some PMUs were “weakening Iraq, its people, and its state”. And Sadr has signalled his intention to coordinate with PMUs that are associated with Iraq’s Shia shrines – which have, in turn, worked to demonstrate their loyalty to the Iraqi state and to distance themselves from PMUs that evade Iraqi state control. One Sadrist political leader told this author that Sadr wanted the PMUs to “be highly disciplined and under the control of the shrines”.[1] If the Sadrist bloc dominates the next government, it may try to strengthen the shrine factions and to hold to account PMUs that do not submit themselves to Iraqi state control.

Iraq’s current prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, has made several attempts to hold armed groups to account for violence against Iraqi activists, but has been forced to retreat after they threatened violent retribution

Sadr has also criticised the armed activities of the so-called “resistance groups” that operate outside state control and that have regularly mounted attacks against Iraqi activists and US interests in Iraq. These armed groups are widely thought to be responsible for attacks on Sadrist figures, including those affiliated with Saraya al-Salam. Although Sadr needs to walk a fine line between criticising the “resistance groups” and displaying his own resistance to Western intervention in Iraq, he has called for the disarmament of these groups as a critical part of efforts to strengthen the Iraqi state.

The Sadrist bloc will be forced to make compromises in negotiations to form a coalition government. Hard-line Shia blocs are already coalescing to deny the Sadrists unchecked control over this government, which is likely to include representatives from parties that are closely aligned with armed groups. The electorate’s strong rejection of armed groups, however, may incentivise these parties to demonstrate their support for strengthened Iraqi state control over armed groups’ activities – and may open a small window of opportunity for reform.

The fate of Iraq’s armed groups will also be heavily influenced by neighbouring Iran. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has long cultivated such groups in Iraq as a source of leverage over Western powers. And this form of power projection remains crucial to Iran as it continues to negotiate for an end to international sanctions on its nuclear programme. Despite Sadr’s efforts to cultivate an anti-Iranian brand, Iran has often influenced his decision-making. For example, following the United States’ killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad in January 2020, Iran persuaded Sadr to end his support for the Iraqi protest movement. And the Sadrist bloc’s efforts to act against armed groups could meet with violent resistance. Iraq’s current prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, has made several attempts to hold armed groups to account for violence against Iraqi activists, but has been forced to retreat after they threatened violent retribution.

The results of the election reinforce the key demands of the protest movement. And political elites in Baghdad should take note that citizens want to see an end to the unchecked power of armed actors that extort, intimidate, and murder Iraqi civilians. The Sadrist bloc has an opportunity to respond to this demand by taking action to end the impunity of such armed groups. But one can expect any reforms to face strong resistance – and to be incremental, at best. The process will be highly sensitive, and reformists will sometimes be accused of acting in support of a pro-Western agenda. European states should, therefore, be highly cautious about publicly engaging with this issue, and should only help the Iraqi government deal with it following a direct request. Any improvement in the security environment for Iraqi activists will help parties created in the protest movement continue to grow rapidly, potentially paving the way for an overhaul of the Iraqi political system in the next parliamentary election, in 2025.

[1] Author’s interview with a Sadrist political leader, 12 October 2021.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Visiting Fellow

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