On Sunday, June 10, an election ballot warehouse caught fire in the al-Rusafa district of Baghdad. The fire affected only one of four warehouse buildings before being extinguished. The fire burned for several hours, but there were mixed reports regarding the extent of the damage. Iraqi officials have suggested no ballot boxes were destroyed, and that only some of the electronic voting machines were impacted by the blaze.
Baghdad provincial council member, Muhammad al-Rabeei, however, claimed that all “boxes and papers have been burned,” although most members of Iraq’s government have maintained that the ballots were not impacted.
On Monday, Iraqi police arrested four suspects involved in the warehouse fire. Three of them were members of the police and the other was a member of the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC). Abadi has directed all provinces to enact stricter security measures to protect other warehouses throughout the country.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi called the fire a “deliberate plot” against the Iraqi government and its attempts at building a democracy. The fire comes just days after the Iraqi Parliament ordered a mandatory nationwide recount of votes in the parliamentary election on May 12.
The Baghdad Post also reports that there were attempts to eliminate a storage site used to house ballot boxes for displaced Iraqi nationals in Jordan as well. The report did not contain information on who made the attempts or the results.
The results of the election could potentially have a major effect on Iraq’s relationship to the United States. The coalition of Shia cleric and militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr captured 54 of 328 Parliamentary seats, the largest amount of any party. Sadr has made a long history of fighting U.S. soldiers over the course of the Iraq War, so to see his coalition capture a plurality of parliamentary seats is an alarming development for U.S. and international efforts of bringing stability to the war-torn country.
A few weeks after the May 12 election, Iraqi intelligence officials presented a report recommending a partial recount due to the unreliability of the new voting machines and other instances of voting violations. The fallout of this report and other allegations of fraud spread far and wide. Members of the IHEC were also barred from travelling abroad.
The issue expected to have the largest impact on Iraqi governance is the annulment of thousands of votes, including those cast by displaced Iraqis abroad. Among the annulled votes were votes cast in Sunni-dominated districts of Anbar, Saladin, and Diyala. Iraq has a long history of catastrophic violence between the majority Shia and minority groups, the Sunnis and Kurds. Each of these groups must view the government as legitimate for Iraq to be successful. The annulment of votes from Sunnis is evidence that sectarian issues, especially between Shia and Sunni, are still ongoing in Iraqi politics.
Also on Sunday, Iraq’s Supreme Judicial Council named nine new judges to take over the responsibilities of the IHEC and oversee the national recount. Sadr rejected calls for a rerun, instead calling on Iraqis to respect the results of the election. He warned of a devolution into civil war if the political parties were unable to reach a consensus over the election.
Less than a week ago, on June 6th, a mosque linked to Sadr exploded, killing and injuring dozens. There was also an attack on the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP), and members of the party claimed the attack was a “deep state” response to the party’s calls to reform the Iraqi government. The ICP has formed an alliance with Sadr to form the Sairoun Alliance to run on nationalist Iraqi policies and rid Iraq of foreign influence, especially from Iran.
Many of the lawmakers who voted for the recount, including the Vice President and Speaker of the Parliament, were part of the losing coalition. Sadr’s coalition boycotted the vote, claiming those responsible for burning the equipment were trying to cancel the election and hide fraudulent voting practices.
Sadr’s claim that some in Iraqi government are attempting to undermine the election has at least a hint of truth, based on the attack and the warehouse fire. Sadr has presented himself as an anti-West, anti-Iran politician, contrasting with current leaders of the government. Sadr has previous ties to Iran, though it was apparent the Iranians only supported him in the fight against Western-backed Coalition Forces. Highlighting corruption caused by Iranian influence in the government, Sadr’s electoral success has caused issues for Iran. The Iranian government will lose influence in its Shia-dominated neighbor, simultaneously hindering its ability to implement policies disruptive to American goals. Sadr has advocated for civil laws that he insists will rid the government of corrupting external forces and create a free, independent Iraq.
Because Sadr’s coalition fell short of the 165 seats required to maintain a majority, it is believed that his Sairoun Alliance will attempt to form a coalition with the Nasr Coalition, led by Prime Minister Abadi. The Nasr Coalition won 42 seats, and the Sairoun Alliance further aligned with the moderate Shia Hikmah party and the secular Wataniyya party. These seats plus the Sairoun’s 54 give the coalition a total of 136 seats. To gain a majority, these two groups will likely have to gain significant support among Sunni and Kurdish groups, though the Hikmah party has made a point of campaigning in Kurdish territories.
Although not likely to form close ties with Iran, this coalition may not be friendly to the U.S. either. It is possible that Abadi, who openly cooperates with the U.S., is again appointed as Prime Minister, though Sadr’s coalition may resist additional U.S. military involvement in counterterror operations. With this arrangement, Iran will still keep its influence among many in the government. However, Sadr’s deliberate campaign against external influence may restrain some of Iran’s ability to effect Iraqi policies. Sadr’s government could have a similar effect on American influence, but if he aligns with Abadi as expected, Sadr’s new coalition would oppose further Iranian influence, while reluctantly cooperating with the U.S. out of necessity.
At present, there is a significant possibility Iran was responsible for burning the warehouse in Baghdad and targeting the one in Jordan. Many in Iraq’s current government have close ties with Iran, and the four arrested could have been directed by loyalists to the Iranian government. Iran opposes Moqtada al-Sadr, who has expressed anti-Iranian sentiments and rode those sentiments to victories in the election. Attacking the electoral process will result in a recount, where there exists the possibility of Sadr’s party losing a few seats, potentially allowing the Iranian-backed Fatah party to add to their current 47 seats. A Fatah party victory would mean the eventual coalition would have stronger ties to Iran than to the U.S., which would mark a drastic shift in Iraqi foreign policy and a huge loss of influence for the U.S. government.
For the time being, it seems the best outcome the United States can hope for is a coalition between Sadr’s party and Abadi’s party to both maintain its influence in the Iraqi government and oppose further influence from the Iranian government. This scenario would allow the U.S. to continue its counterterror operations, continue assisting Iraqi forces in security operations, and curtail Iranian activities in Iraq. This election is the first since the defeat of the Islamic State caliphate, so the results represent a good checkpoint to determine the success of U.S. goals in Iraq.