There is still no clear winner (HUSSEIN FALEH/AFP via Getty Images)

October 25, 2021   5 mins

The man approaches me, holds up his index finger and smiles. He points across the wide boulevard toward a lamppost, on which dangles a fluttering poster of a local politician here in central Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region of Iraq. It’s 10 October — election day —and the man’s fingertip is coated in the violet phosphorous-based ink that signifies his vote has been cast.

Unremovable, the ink fades from the skin in around 48 hours or so. It’s become something of a status symbol; the Iraqi democratic process given corporeal form, quite literally imprinted onto the bodies of those who subscribe to it. 

A fortnight on from the elections and, with no clear winner, the horse-trading to form a new government is only just beginning. It will be a fraught process — for many of the reasons that the wider Middle East is fraught, too: sectarianism, corruption, civil strife and, of course, foreign meddling. These are bad enough. But the problems that strafed Iraq and the wider region throughout the 20th century are now galvanised by one of the 21st century’s most powerful forces: digitally powered disinformation.

Understand the Iraqi elections and understand, in miniature, at least some of the wider forces driving instability across the Middle East. The electoral process is theoretically simple: the people elect 329 members of Parliament, who in turn elect the President of Iraq and confirm the Prime Minister. Whichever party or bloc gets 165 seats forms a government. Given Iraq’s fractured polity, this never really happens — and this time was no exception.

The largest party, with 72 seats, is the Sadrist Movement, led by the scowling and barking Shi’ite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Sadr comes from a famous clerical family and his name carries huge weight among Iraq’s Shia, whom he led against US forces following 2003’s Operation Iraqi Freedom. He is a rare animal in Iraqi politics: a Shi’ite leader independent — at least rhetorically — of Iran.

The other major Shia forces are former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki’s State of Law party, which got 35 seats, and then the Al-Fatah Alliance, which saw its vote drop to just 15 seats (from 48 in the 2018 election). Officially, its leaders have close ties to Iran, but most Iraqi Sunnis — and indeed many Shia (plus most of the region) — consider them to be a straight-out Iranian proxy. Other Shia parties include the militia (and designated terror group) Kata’ib Hezbollah, which recently formed the Huqooq party, and which got one vote; and the Victory Alliance of Haider al-Abadi (another former PM), which got four seats. As ever post-2003, the Iraq Shia, so long oppressed by former leader Saddam Hussein, remain politically dominant.

The Sunni Taqaddum (Progress) came second with 37, while Iraq’s third major ethnic bloc, the Kurds, saw its major party the Kurdistan Patriotic Union (KDP) take 16 seats. A variety of smaller parties and independents made up the remainder.

It is this patchwork of ethnic, sectarian, and religious groupings that seeks to rule Iraq — and it is this which is, of course, the problem. If Iraqi society is divided, its politics are sundered. The 2021 elections were born of crisis after swathes of Iraqi youth took to the streets in 2019, sick of the corruption that dominates their lives, of those who rule them, and of the sectarianism that courses through the veins of the body politic. It was the largest civil unrest in Iraq since 2003 and it was bloody. The Government, backed by many of the Pro-Iranian Shia militias that support it, struck back, often firing live ammo; more than 1,000 people were killed. In the end, though, it was too much. The Government faced a simple choice: massacre everyone or back down. It backed down. Then Prime Minister, Adil Abdul-Mahdi, resigned to be replaced by the incumbent, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi. New elections were promised: they have just been delivered.

Campaigning was merciless. Every party and group and sect seemed to toss accusations at the other: Sunni versus Shia; Shia versus Shia and Sunni; Shia versus Kurds. But certain narratives and tropes reoccur. These are clearly identifiable as false or misleading, designed to achieve behavioural change, and as such are what we might usefully describe as disinformation. They are also instructive, because not only do they spread across legacy and social media, allowing us a glimpse of what experts call the Iraqi Information environment (IE), but they are geared toward exploiting psychological vulnerabilities in Iraqis (as with all nationalities), which are formed by a specific set of cultural, historical, and geographical experiences.

The Iraqi IE, especially its online spaces, is toxic at the best of times, but things began to get worse about a month before the election. And while all sides engage in disinformation, it’s clear that pro-Iranian Shia groups and their associates — perhaps reflecting their dominant position and foreign backing — do it more often and better than anyone else.

Given Iraq has had foreign troops on its soil for almost twenty years, not to mention a history of colonialism still very much alive in the national consciousness, then narratives that speak to foreign interference are popular there — as they are across the Middle East. About three weeks before the vote, Kata’ib Hezbollah-owned Aleitjah TV posted a report on Telegram claiming that international election observers form the UN and EU were seeking to manipulate the elections for the benefit of Western interests. The story even included a fabricated quote from the UN special representative to Iraq, who was quoted as remarking that “if things don’t go the way they’re supposed to, we will have another say in this”.

These kinds of narratives never fail to appeal and spread rapidly across social media — and none more so than those that mention the “Zionists”. Three weeks before the election, pro-Iran outlet Sabereen News got in early and attacked UN representative Hilary Stauffer on Telegram, claiming that she had worked in Israel before Iraq and was, inevitably, a Mossad operative, a lie that was, naturally, repeated on mainstream channels.

Much of the online content here has unsurprisingly been sectarian in nature. A Kata’ib Hezbollah-linked group claimed it had hacked a database containing a list of Sunni politicians frequenting the Saudi Embassy in Baghdad, which was supposedly buying votes for them. It was all nonsense, but clever nonsense nonetheless. It was clearly designed to exploit Shia fears of Sunni meddling in the elections, as well as to rhetorically bolster Iran’s broader geopolitical battle with Saudi Arabia for influence in the region.

Then came the day itself. Sabereen News began reporting — totally falsely — that “forces” had entered a polling station to mess with the count. Another group of pro-Iran outlets, again led by the now relentless Sabereen News, reported that voting at polling stations across several provinces, including Anbar and Baghdad, had been disrupted because voting servers, located in the UAE (a close Saudi ally) were, with the help of an Iraqi National Intelligence officer, being used to tamper with votes.

Now that the results are in, it’s clear that one theme unites all these narratives: what we might call “the big lie”; that the voted was rigged, altered, or otherwise tampered with, and is therefore invalid. Once this is understood it’s obvious why most of the disinformation came from Pro-Iran outlets and parties. Al-Fatah lost over 30 seats. Iraqis have once more shown that they don’t want Iran in their country, but Iran cannot let this stand.

Indeed, as soon as the results started to become clear, Iran’s footsoldiers started getting their people out. On 12 October, two days after the vote, an Al-Fatah linked group announced that they had filed complaints with the electoral commission, threatening “alternative measures” if these weren’t addressed. A week later, another pro-Iran group released a statement also rejecting the elections and urging Iraqis to “demand their rights” and take to the streets.

Al-Fatah knows they will not force a recount, but they don’t really want one. After all, they’d only lose again, and they know it. But get their people out on the street and they can exercise influence on the incoming administration. The new Iraqi government can ignore 15 seats in the parliament. It can’t ignore 50,000 people on the streets.

All of this is likely to go on for several more months. The infighting will get worse, and the disinformation will grow. And all the while Iran will benefit from the chaos, as it always does — and the Iraqi people will suffer, as they always do.

David Patrikarakos is UnHerd‘s foreign correspondent. His latest book is War in 140 characters: how social media is reshaping conflict in the 21st century. (Hachette)