Iran-backed groups have lost significant ground in Iraq but Tehran still has some supporters to help it keep its influence over the neighbouring country.
On the eve of Iraq’s elections, Asaib Ahl al-Haq put up banners and posters across Baghdad, which was once the staging point of US military operations in the country.
The picture depicted on the posters showed blood-red tents - a scene representing the 7th century martyrdom of Hussain, Prophet Muhammad’s grandson - surrounding the US Congress building in Washington.
Asaib Ahl al-Haq, an Iran-backed Shia militia, operates under Hashd al Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation Forces), an umbrella organisaton of armed groups supported by Tehran.
But the Sunday election did not go well for Hashd al Shaabi and its allied political parties such as the Fatah Alliance, which lost significant number of seats mainly because people no longer find any appeal in its militant message.
For months before the elections, Iraqis had protested against corrupt politicians and Iran, a country they blame for much of their troubles.
Even though the election turnout was low, the voters have made more than obvious that they don’t want outside interference, especially if it means formation of an incompetent government.
The success of Shia leader Muqtada al Sadr’s party in winning the single largest share of parliamentary seats is indicative of that frustration, experts say.
Anti-Iran politician Sadr has emerged as a champion of Iraq’s middle and lower classes in recent years.
“Surprisingly, pro-Iranian factions have appeared to lose a lot of ground,” says Mehmet Alaca, an expert on Iran’s Shia proxies in the Middle East.
Among the Iranian-aligned political parties, the Fatah Alliance lost nearly two thirds of its seats in the parliament, down to 14 from 48, according to preliminary results. “This is really a disastrous result for them,” Alaca says.
For many years after the US invasion in 2003, Baghdad was scarred by bloody violence, which included relentless suicide bombings and armed attacks.
But for Alaca, who monitored the recent election as an observer, the city was uncharacteristically calm.
“Baghdad was silent. Incredibly quiet,” Alaca tells TRT World.
But Baghdad’s calmness has unnerved Tehran. Iran’s powerful Quds Force commander, Esmail Qaani, arrived in the Iraqi capital on Monday, triggering speculation that his visit at this juncture is more for political reasons than any military purpose.
“Some people believe that the delay in the official announcement of the election results is because of Qaani,” says Alaca.
“Even Sadr tweeted saying that there is both internal and external interference to the vote counting and announcement process. He has urged the election commission to announce the results immediately.”
Sadr’s Iraqi nationalism
Sadr, the son of a prominent Iraqi Shia scholar, has long used Iraqi nationalism to shape his political aspirations.
“We even saw him wearing a traditional Iraqi dress before the election,” Alaca says, referring to an ankle-length dress, which is accompanied with a keffiyeh. That’s significant as Sadr is almost always seen in public cloaked in a black gown and turban, the attire of a Shia scholar.
In Shia-dominated southern Iraq, pro-Iranian factions have fared particularly badly. “In four or five cities, where both anti-Iran sentiment and protest culture has been high, they could not win even a single seat,” Alaca says.
Iran was once seen as a liberator fighting to rid Iraq from Daesh. But then its backing of politicians who are embroiled in corruption allegations has turned Iraqis against Tehran.
Is Maliki’s success a relief for Iran?
Nouri al Maliki, Iraq’s former prime minister, also did well in the elections on the back of his strong tribal connections. His State of Law Alliance is the second biggest group in the parliament with 37 seats. Alaca says pro-Iranian voters might have shifted towards Maliki.
Maliki, who was forced out of office in 2014 after he failed to stop the Daesh insurgency, has close links with Iran, something that has aided his political survival.
Mehmet Bulovali, an Iraqi-Kurdish political analyst, says Maliki’s success in winning seats shows that Iran still has influence within Iraq.
“The election results show that Iran’s support base has moved from Fatah Alliance to Maliki’s bloc,” sees Bulovali. “While some votes of pro-Iranian factions went to Sadr, most of them shifted to Maliki.”
“Maliki did really well, significantly increasing his votes from the previous elections,” Bulovali says.
This means Sadr and his Sunni and Kurdish partners would need Maliki’s support to form a coalition government, he says.
While Sadr has not shown any signs of joining hands with Maliki, others are more open to the idea.
Masoud Barzani-led Kurdish party and Sunni politician Mohammed Rikan Hadeed al-Halbousi’s bloc have no issues in forming a government with Maliki, according to Bulovali.
“As a result, through Maliki, Iran will be the fourth (coalition) partner in the future Iraqi government,” he says.
Some old faces and groups - Sunni, Shia and Kurdish - have lost significance after the elections - possibly forever, says Bulovali.
“This phenomenon shows an important transformation in Iraqi politics,” he says.
Among the biggest losers are former Prime Minister Haider al Abadi and Sayyed Ammar al Hakim, two Shia politicians, who co-led the Alliance of National State Forces. Their 71 seats were reduced to four or maybe five members, the results showed.
Some Sunni politicians like Saleh al Mutlaq, the leader of the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, also lost significant ground.
The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Gorran movement, the two Kurdish parties, also witnessed significant losses.
The PUK was reduced to 15 seats, far behind the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s 32 seats. The Gorran did much worse. It did not win any seats.
Sunday’s elections might signal the end of the PUK dominance and the further empowerment of the KDP, Barzani’s party. The KDP won seats in Mosul and Kirkuk, where the PUK’s late leader Jalal Talabani was born.