Middle East Ticker

Iraq’s Controversial Cleric Poised to Win Election

By J. Dana Stuster
Tuesday, May 15, 2018, 11:56 AM

As U.S. Opens Embassy in Jerusalem, Israeli Forces Kill 60 Demonstrators in Gaza

More than a month of protests in Gaza culminated yesterday in a deadly day of rallies. Approximately 40,000 Gazans participated; some burned tires and hurled stones and molotov cocktails at the border fence. Israeli troops fired live ammunition at protesters along the Gaza-Israel border, killing 60 people, including several children. More than a thousand people required treatment for bullet wounds, and more than a thousand more needed other medical attention.

Israeli forces had months to prepare for the protest, which commemorated the Naqba, the displacement of Palestinians during the creation of Israel in 1948. Weekly protests, supported by Hamas and called the “Great March of Return,” have massed on the Gaza-Israel border since late March. Israeli officials have leafletted the area, warning protesters not to approach the fence, and occasionally dropped tear gas from drones to disperse crowds, but have also relied heavily on snipers positioned near the border. Israeli officials have said that troops fired only at “targets of terrorist activity,” but the recent deaths of children, journalists, a medic, and a protester filmed running away from Israeli troops have raised legitimate doubts about Israeli forces’ discretion regarding the use of force. Israeli troops have killed 105 activists along the Gaza border since the protests began, and Monday was the deadliest day in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since Operation Protective Edge, a seven-week-long clash in 2014.

The violence coincided with the transfer of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The opening ceremony—marked by the unveiling of a new plaque on what was previously the U.S. consulate in the city commemorating President Donald Trump’s decision—was attended by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, and U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. “Remember this moment, this is history,” Netanyahu said in remarks at the event. “President Trump, by recognizing history, you have made history.”

Trump’s decision to move the embassy, announced last December, broke with U.S. policy that had predicated the move on an agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians on the status of Jerusalem. Palestinian officials criticized the move, complaining that it prejudiced future negotiations, and amid the violence yesterday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said that the United States has “excluded itself as an intermediate broker” for peace talks. Some U.S. experts—including Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass and former CIA Director John Brennan—warned that the decision has weakened the U.S. negotiating position and was a major concession to Israel with no real benefit.

While many countries called for restraint along the Israel-Gaza border—some even summoning Israeli ambassadors to deliver sharp criticism directly—U.S. Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah dismissed the deaths of Palestinian protesters yesterday as “a gruesome and unfortunate propaganda attempt” and placed the full responsibility for the violence on Hamas. Shah said that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo supports Israel’s right to self-defense, but when asked for further comment today by CNN’s Michelle Kosinski, Pompeo walked away from reporters.

 

Controversial Cleric’s Nationalist Politics Win Out in Iraqi Elections

While official results are still pending, the apparent outcome of Iraq’s election is a surprise win for the political movement backed by erstwhile insurgent-turned-reformer Muqtada al-Sadr. The election on Friday was the country’s first since the Islamic State swept through the country in 2014, which prompted a political crisis and the replacement of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki with Haider al-Abadi. Over the past four years, Abadi has deftly balanced U.S. and Iranian influence in the campaign against the Islamic State, all with a sort of charming boringness—Aron Lund has aptly described him as “avuncular” —that managed to be not just palatable to rival factions, but even convey a sense of normalcy in the midst of crisis. He campaigned on a unity ticket in districts usually eschewed by Shia politicians, but with the votes nearly tallied it now appears that it was not enough to win a plurality of seats.

The vote was marred by boycotts and general dissatisfaction. Only 45 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the elections; as the Washington Post notes, that’s down sharply from the 62 percent turnout in 2014 and 2010. And in a surprising turn of events, the plurality of Iraqi voters appear to have backed the electoral list supported by Sadr, who has in recent years reinvented himself as a an anti-corruption crusader. Sadr was thrust onto the political scene after the U.S. invasion in 2003 and, as the heir to a respected clerical dynasty, organized an insurgency opposing the U.S. occupation. He eventually fled to Iran and remained there from 2007 to 2011. Since his return, though, he has broken with his former sponsors in Tehran and adopted an Iraqi nationalist ideology more in line with that of his populist father, who was assassinated by Saddam Hussein in 1999. In recent years, Sadr has promoted anti-corruption protests and an inclusive, non-sectarian Iraqi identity. “An important outcome of Mr. Sadr joining a nonsectarian coalition is a new strain of pluralism and tolerance,” Thanassis Cambanis wrote last week for the New York Times. “The liberating effect is visible in how Iraqis irrespective of class, sectarian and sexual identities can reclaim public spaces without fear.”

Preliminary results show the electoral list backed by Hadi al-Amiri, a commander of the Shia militia movement backed by Iran that mobilized against the Islamic State, in second, and Abadi’s nationalist coalition in third. Sadr, who sponsored the electoral list without participating as a candidate, is now positioning himself as a potential kingmaker. In a Tweet on Monday, he suggested that he is not considering forming a coalition government with Iran’s favored faction, Amiri’s Al-Fatih. Qassem Soleimani is reportedly in Baghdad to coordinate with rival Shia parties on the formation of a government.

As the preliminary results tilted against him, Abadi said yesterday that he would work together with the winners in the election to form a government and encouraged other political parties to do the same. “We are ready to work and cooperate in forming the strongest government for Iraq, free of corruption,” he said. As Tamer El-Ghobashi noted on Twitter, Abadi may yet keep his office as a consensus candidate in a governing coalition, but his remarks also signal a willingness to accept the results of the election and transfer power peacefully.

Just two days before the election, Iraq had a May Surprise: Iraqi officials announced last Wednesday that they had arrested five very senior officials in the Islamic State, including a close aide to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and one of the terrorist group’s regional governors. The arrests came in a sting coordinated between Iraqi and Turkish authorities that lured the Islamic State officials into a meeting using Telegram, a social media app favored by the Islamic State. Ismail al-Eithawi, the aide to Baghdadi, was responsible for managing much of the organization’s finances, and an Iraqi security official told Reuters that his capture has produced intelligence on Islamic State bank accounts and brought Baghdadi closer to capture.

The announcement of the election results will now initiate what could be a contentious negotiation process to form a new coalition government. The elections will also have lingering effects for the country’s Kurdish politics. Kurdistan is still reeling from a catastrophic bid for secession last fall; though Kurds voted overwhelmingly to break away in a referendum, the vote was held without any international support and Iraqi forces quickly seized contested areas, prompting a political crisis that forced Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani from office. As Morgan Kaplan wrote this weekend for Lawfare, Kurdish candidates will likely lose seats overall in the Iraqi election, but because they are spread across several lists, they may be influential swing blocs in the formation of a coalition government. How the next few weeks play out will set the stage for Kurdistan’s regional parliamentary and presidential elections in September. If Kurdish politicians can gain a foothold in the new Iraqi government, it could hasten a thaw in relations between the northern enclave and Baghdad, but if they don’t, it will strengthen the hand of candidates seeking a hard break with the Iraqi state in the fall.

 

Hezbollah Makes Gains in Lebanese Election, but Balance of Power Continues

The results are in from Lebanon’s May 6 election, the country’s first since 2009. The results were somewhat unpredictable on account of the implementation of a new electoral law and the emergence of new, independent civil society candidates bucking Lebanon’s sectarian political tradition, but most experts predicted the country’s Shia and Sunni blocs to maintain their preeminent role in the government.

That proved to be the case, and the real competition in the election was among the country’s established parties over a handful of seats in the country’s 128-seat parliament. Hezbollah picked up significant gains, as did the Free Patriotic Movement, a Hezbollah ally and the party of Lebanon’s Christian president, Michel Aoun. The Future Movement, led by Sunni Prime Minister Saad Hariri, took the sharpest losses, losing almost one-third of its seats. Hariri’s poor showing at the polls came after a difficult year: He publicly resigned last fall while being held under duress by his political sponsors in Saudi Arabia, only to rescind his resignation soon after. His return to Lebanon was met with political unity and a rare moment of nationalist pride, but that sentiment did not translate into votes. Despite the losses, he has retained the support of his allies in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates; diplomats from both countries met with Hariri the day after the election, on May 7. “We wanted to be the first congratulating Prime Minister Hariri on his win in the parliamentary elections," Saudi Charge d’Affaires Walid al-Bukhari said after. Because of the religious allotment of executive offices, Hariri is likely to retain the office of prime minister.

It would be easy to read too much into these results. While the elections moved the needle in parliament, reports noted underwhelming turnout—initial reports estimated only 30 to 40 percent turnout in the capital, though the Interior Ministry’s final national results put the official figure was 49 percent. That marks a 5 percent drop from the 2009 elections. The interim has seen political crises and poor provision of public services that have rattled Lebanese attitudes about the government’s effectiveness. Despite public disenchantment with the democratic process, tensions still ran high. Fist fights broke out at some polling places and clashes between rival supporters continued into the night after polls closed. Some of Lebanon’s international partners are concerned about the influence that Hezbollah’s electoral gains could have on the country’s stability. The International Support Group for Lebanon, a coalition that includes the United States, Russia, China, and several European powers, issued a statement last week calling on Lebanon to consult with the international community about its national security and cited U.N. resolutions calling on all militias in Lebanon—including Hezbollah—to disarm.

 

Erdogan Races Economic Instability to the Polls

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is preparing for snap elections to be held in June, which he announced just last month. Erdogan is hoping to shore up his political position and assume expanded presidential powers that he has long advocated and finally secured in a national referendum in April 2017. But he is also racing against the clock to beat a potential economic downturn that could tilt the field away from him. The Turkish economy is continuing to grow at a blistering rate, but experts worry it is running out of steam and the policies driving growth are also driving up inflation. The value of the Turkish lira dropped again last week to a new low of 4.37 to the U.S. dollar after President Donald Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and reimpose sanctions on Iran, prompting Erdogan to convene a meeting of his senior economic advisors.

Erdogan pledged earlier this month that, if re-elected, Turkey will enter a new era as a “global power” and has promised to shore up the country’s economy and continue military campaigns against Kurdish groups in Syria. "In the new term, Turkey will add new operations to the Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch operations," he said in a speech on May 6, referring to the Turkish intervention that has stoked tensions with U.S. forces. "The operations will continue until not one terrorist is left."

The election will also be the first since the attempted coup that targeted Erdogan’s administration in July 2016. The Turkish government is continuing to target political dissidents and on Friday issued arrest warrants for 300 members of the military accused of links to the Gulenist Movement. The post-coup purges have resulted in approximately 50,000 arrests and more than 110,000 dismissals from public-sector jobs.