Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced a bid for re-election on Saturday with the support of anti-American, Iran-backed Shiite militias that have turned their guns on the pro-U.S. Iraqi Kurds following the demise of the Islamic State in Mosul.
Abadi will run against his predecessor, the largely disgraced Nouri al-Maliki, who stepped down and handed the prime ministership over to Abadi in 2014 in response to widespread pressure to step down. Maliki currently serves as the nation’s vice president.
Abadi has presided over Iraq through most of its struggle against the Islamic State and can count the fall of the group in Sinjar, home to much of the nation’s Yazidi minority, and Mosul, the country’s second-largest city, among events that transpired during his tenure.
Abadi has also brought Iraq heavily under the influence of the Iranian Islamic regime, which aids the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU/PMF) or Hashd al-Shaabi militias that endorsed him over the weekend. Abadi legalized the PMU during the fight for Mosul and has since allowed them to attack Kurdish territories in Kirkuk.
PMU leaders have repeatedly threatened to attack American troops operating in the country.
Iraqis go to the polls on May 12.
Abadi announced Saturday that he was launching his re-election bid with a group he called the “Victory Alliance,” as the head of his political party, Dawa, is rival Maliki. A key group within the “Victory Alliance” is the PMF.
Shiite cleric Ammar al-Hakim confirmed that the PMF was supporting Abadi, according to Kurdish outlet Rudaw.
“Thanks to the blessing of God, an agreement has been concluded to enter the upcoming elections with a trilateral alliance that will include Hikma Movement [of Hakim], Abadi’s [Nasr] list, and the Hashd parties,” a spokesman for Hakim’s Movement party reportedly said on Sunday.
Lebanon’s Daily Starreported that the head of one of the militias in the PMF, Ahmad al-Kinani of the Asaib Ahl al-Haq, is among those in the coalition, and that “Abadi had won the support of 18 lists” of military factions. Asaib Ahl al-Haq (“League of the Righteous”) threatened American troops in 2016, warning in a statement, “If the U.S. administration doesn’t withdraw its forces immediately, we will deal with them as forces of occupation.”
According to the Institute for the Study of War, Asaib Ahl al-Haq is responsible for more than 6,000 attacks on U.S. troops between 2006 and 2011. Congress introduced legislation to brand the group a terrorist organization in November.
The outlet Kurdistan24, which typically reports news favorable to the pro-American Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq, reported this week that Abadi brokered the support of the PMF with the help of Iranian terror chief General Qasem Soleimani, head of the Quds Force terror wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The U.S. Treasury has branded the entirety of the IRGC a terrorist organization.
A source suggested to Kurdistan24 that Abadi, which had worked to cultivate a pro-U.S. image in the past, “doesn’t have much support” to remain in power without the PMF.
The move has triggered stern condemnation from Muqtada al-Sadr, one of Iraq’s most influential Shiite clerics. “I express condolences to my struggling and patient nation due to the despicable political agreements that pave the road for corrupted individuals to come back,” al-Sadr said in a statement regarding the deal. The cleric described himself as “baffled” by the legitimization of the PMF, and particularly the Asaib Ahl al-Haq.
Asaib Ahl al-Haq is among the most extreme Shiite militias in the PMF coalition, which also includes Turkmen, Yazidis, and other minorities and may total up to 140,000 troops. As the Islamic State’s influence spread in Iraq, the PMF became increasingly successful in destroying ISIS positions, earning praise from the U.S. government despite repeated threats from groups like Asaib Ahl al-Haq.
“Before I got here, I read all kinds of things about the PMF, and I got here and I haven’t observed that behavior,” American Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the commander of the U.S.-led ISIS coalition, said a year ago from Iraq. “We’re not having allegations of bad behavior or misconduct.”
Abadi legalized the PMF as a formal wing of the Iraqi military prior to the fall of Mosul. Following the demise of the Islamic State in the area, the PMF turned to Kirkuk, which fell under Kurdish control after the Iraqi military fled an ISIS attack in 2014. PMU forces attacked the KRG and created an internal migration crisis as tens of thousands of civilians in Kirkuk fled the Shiite invasion.
Abadi supported the military action, claiming that Kurdistan’s September independence referendum and the fall of ISIS demanded the return of Kirkuk to Baghdad’s, not Erbil’s, control. Despite the KRG’s consistent support of the United States in Iraq, the Trump administration refused to “take sides” between Iran-backed terror units and the most stable regional government in modern Iraqi history.
In America’s absence, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov offered to mediate talks between Baghdad and Erbil this week.