ISIS poses a problem for upcoming Iraqi elections

Campaign banners for various candidates line a street in Baghdad ahead of the upcoming electionBAGHDAD – Iraqi politician Faruq Al-Jubouri was optimistic about his country’s future.

The 42-year-old agronomist was running as a member of the non-sectarian National Alliance in parliamentary elections on Saturday, May 12 – the first ballot since the Iraqi central government and its allies, including the US, defeated the Islamic State two years ago.

But on Monday, May 7 a gunman shot Al-Jubouri dead. Shortly after, ISIS claimed responsibility on the encrypted messaging app Telegram, declaring they killed the father of three sons because he was an atheist.

Former prime minister Nuri Al Maliki is also running but neither he nor his State of Law bloc are not expected to garner a large share of the vote. Al Maliki left office in 2014 in disgrace for his handling of the ISIS threat.

“Faruq was an agriculture professor interested in plans for our future, not a typical vote-buying politician offering jobs and goodies,” said his cousin Omar Ali Al-Jubouri, 33. “He wasn’t handing out mobile phone company gift cards or giving cows and sheep away to get elected.”

The death of a promising legislator is a sample of the violence that has flared up in Iraq faces in the runup to Saturday. Last week, the jihadists released a video showing a point-blank execution of two get-out-the-vote campaigners in a town 35 miles north of Baghdad. Most recently, the threatened to attack polling stations.

ISIS appeared to be leveraging Sunni-Shiite rivalries to disrupt and undermine the legitimacy of Iraq’s fragile democracy.

"We warn you, Sunnis of Iraq that these Shiites are taking power,” ISIS spokesman Abul-Hassan Al-Muhajer told an extremist website. “Anyone who participates in the vote will be considered an infidel, a disbeliever deserving of death.”

But Al Muhajer’s warning falls on deaf ears in much of the Sunni community today, said Hisham Al-Hashimi, an independent Iraqi scholar and expert on Islamist groups.

“The real problem that afflicts ISIS is their loss of their base,” said Al-Hashimi. “Their beliefs and methodologies have less and less traction in a community that has enjoyed a gradual return of normal daily life and is now focused on working seriously for Iraq’s reconstruction and stability.”

Iraqi authorities have detained dozens of terror suspects, restricted vehicular movement and deployed of thousands of police and army troops to guard polling stations.

“The Baghdad Operations Command is stopping the movement of trucks typically used in mass explosions and motorcycles used for targeted killings as part of a comprehensive plan to stop terrorism,” said Iraqi Major General Jalil al-Rubaie.

Those measures did not stop ISIS from sending a suicide attacker after Zeytoun Al-Dulaimi, a 63-year-old National Alliance member of parliament from southern Baghdad on Tuesday, May 8. Al-Dulaimi survived the attack but five other candidates have been killed and seven have been wounded.

Many Iraqi women are concerned about the consequences of the vote.

“Some political forces have worked and are still working to legislate laws trying to prevent women from playing a significant role in development and rebuilding our country,” said Shorouk Al-Abayachi, an incumbent candidate with the secular political group Tamadun.

Some religious parties have proposed minor marriage, selling widows and other so-called traditions, said Al-Abayachi. “I am terrified that these politicians want to take us back to the past in the name of tradition and religion while the block important laws to protect women from domestic violence,” she said.

The elections will also be a test for al-Fateh, a hybrid between a militia-and-political party whose Shiite Muslim ideology resembles that of Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Al-Fateh fighters appeared after the Iraqi army failed to stop ISIS in 2014. Today, they’re running as candidates.

“There is one phrase spreading among people – that Al-Fateh is the protector of your pride, meaning that they kept ISIS away from the women in your family,” said Anas Al-Sheikh, 24, a commercial television director in Baghdad.

Al-Fateh’s role in pushing ISIS back has helped its leader, 63-year-old leader Hadi al-Amiri, to become a viable alternative to current Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

Al-Amir would presumably empower Iranian interest in Iraq. He never held a post in the Iraqi army but received military training Iran that he put to use against the Islamic State.

“Iran’s influence has grown among the Shiite population after their military advisors brought the militias victory against ISIS,” said Jasim Wadi, Baghdad University political scientist.

Fears of that influence have led Saudi Arabia to take the extraordinary move of supporting Iraq’s government, Wadi added.

To curb Tehran’s reach, Saudi Arabia is backing a slate led by Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr Sadr, who at the time of the U.S. occupation cooperated with Al Qaeda to plan attacks on American troops. Sadr is now leading a new non-sectarian multi-party bloc Sa’iroon that surprisingly also includes Iraqi communists.

“Iran will not allow the liberals and the communists to govern Iraq,” declared Ali Akbar Velayati, the top adviser to Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, during a recent visit to Baghdad.

Back in Al-Qayyarah, Al-Jubouri’s supporters have vowed to prevent his assassination from blocking their vision of a peaceful and united Iraq.

“Al-Jubouri’s battle was against ISIS and radicalism for the sake of coexistence and promoting Iraq’s national identity,” said neighbor Rayhan Al-Mosulli. “We should go to the ballots to revenge his death.”

An alternative version of this story can be found in USA Today.
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