A hero for defeating ISIS, Iraq’s PM still has to woo voters

In the years before the 2003 invasion, Iraqis only had one choice at the poll: Saddam Hussein. Fifteen years later, the tyrant deposed and executed, Iraq’s field of candidates is now so varied that voters can choose between thousands of Shia, Sunni and Kurdish aspirants from 87 parties.

With so many contenders this year, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi stands at the epicenter of the hotly contested election. And though he’s universally considered a hero for routing ISIS, his victory at the polls is far from certain.

It’s been a tumultuous four years for Abadi. He was appointed prime minister in 2014 after his predecessor oversaw a whiplash-inducing retreat of Iraqi soldiers in the face of an ISIS assault on one of the country’s largest cities. Since then, he’s stood at the helm of an eventual defeat of the Islamist group, put down a Kurdish rebellion in the north, and hosted Iranian and American forces within elbowing distance of each other without it devolving into another all-out war on his turf.

Meanwhile, suicide bombings continue to plague Baghdad, disputes over oil revenues have stalled in parliament, and more than two million Iraqis remain displaced from the war with ISIS.

Now, Abadi faces a reckoning by the people, as Iraqis go to the polls on May 12 to vote in a new parliament.

A fractured coalition

Notwithstanding the myriad challenges facing a decimated Iraq — the government estimates it will need around $90 billion to rebuild cities and towns left in tatters by the Islamic State — Abadi has had to navigate his way to building new regional alliances with his predecessor, Nuri al-Maliki, continually nipping at his heels.

Maliki, who has stridently attacked Abadi’s Western leanings by insisting Iraq’s truest ally remains Iran, has broken from the prime minister’s bloc and created his own.

In the 2005 elections, the first real vote following the ouster of dictator Saddam Hussein, Shia political parties ran as a single group. That was both to ensure a Shia victory for the first time after years of Sunni dominance, and consolidate power within the legislature to enact the laws they wanted without having to woo other factions.

This time, however, the Shia are split into five coalitions, and Abadi’s “Victory Alliance” list includes Sunni candidates in provinces such as Nineveh in the north and Anbar to the West. His is also the only one to run in each of Iraq’s 18 provinces.

But despite the endorsement of allies including the US, Abadi faces the likelihood of not gaining the necessary seats to win a majority, which means he’ll have to reach out to groups including Maliki’s and that of former Transportation Minister Hadi al-Amiri — a one time head of an umbrella group of Iran-backed Shia militias that fought against ISIS.

The vote among the Shia Iraqis will likely be split between those three groups, making it nearly inevitable that Abadi will have to negotiate with them.

The Shia paramilitaries, known as the Popular Mobilization Units, were condemned for their brutality against Iraqis living in areas that were under ISIS’ control. Human Rights Watch called on Iraqi commanders to prevent the PMU from taking part in military operations, citing a record of abuses against the Sunni population including summary killings, enforced disappearances, torture and the destruction of homes.

In an interview in 2016 Amiri said: “I don’t claim that there are never violations that occur during war. This is a war, and in a war, there are violations.”

Eventually, the PMU were excluded from fighting campaigns in Sunni areas. The US and Iraqi military led assaults into ISIS-controlled towns including Mosul, to avoid inflaming sectarian tensions that arose when the PMU fighters were sent in.

Playing the ‘Victory’ card

On December 9 last year, Abadi declared victory over ISIS. He said Iraqi military forces had driven ISIS fighters from Iraq and had secured the border with Syria. The campaign to eradicate the group took more than three years and encompassed US and allied troops on the ground and in the air, including some 25,000 coalition airstrikes.

That victory is Abadi’s biggest political card in this election, hence the name of his “Victory Alliance.” He also visited regions of the country that had previously been in ISIS hands, promising to help residents rebuild.

“He’s the favorite to win, and he’s trying to pursue this Iraq-wide strategy,” said Renad Mansour, a research fellow in the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House. “He came to the Kurdistan region and he came to Sunni areas in Nineveh and Anbar and now he’s in the south, he’s trying to cover the whole country.”

Speaking to CNN from Iraq, Mansour said that the high that seized the nation after the defeat of ISIS has quickly faded, and reality has set in. The issues that made Iraq a breeding ground for extremist groups, he argued, still exist.

“People are like, we beat ISIS, fine, but the leadership hasn’t been able to deliver anything to us, the system is corrupt and there’s all these issues, you have the same leaders promising change and promising to combat the structure that they themselves built so you have a lot of Iraqis who believe that not much change is possible through elections,” he said.

Ambivalence, and Iran in the background

Many Iraqis say they will not vote on Saturday because most of those running are familiar faces who in the past promised change, but have failed to deliver.

“When you put one or two people in jail that doesn’t mean you have fought corruption,” said political candidate Faisal Abdullah Obeid, speaking to CNN in Baghdad, where he is running for parliament on a center left platform.

“If you don’t follow up on them all, the Iraqi people will ask you today or tomorrow what you’ve done for Iraq,” said Obeid.

“We can say honestly and with all transparency that the political class is unqualified to rule the country, and we can say he was the best among them, but we can’t say he’s answering the demands of the Iraqi people,” Obeid said of Abadi.

As a sign of how ambivalent people are about voting, the country’s highest Shiite religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, didn’t insist everyone get out and vote on the weekend. In the past he’d demanded Iraqis take part to ensure a solid Shia showing at the polls.

In a recent sermon, Sistani left the decision to vote up to the Iraqi individual. But he has told voters to “avoid falling into the trap of those … who are corrupt and those who have failed, whether they have been tried or not.”

“This time, he said voting is part of the system but it’s up to the citizen to vote or not to vote, so very clearly he’s disgruntled by the political system in Iraq,” Mansour said.

The danger for indifferent Iraqis is to continue to vote along identity lines, even as the sectarianism that enveloped the country for so many years now appears to be ebbing.

“The voters always have the last word and could well decide to return to the usual suspects, in the same political alignments, to parliament,” said Douglas Ollivant, a former NSC director during the Bush and Obama administrations.

“Further, it is not at all clear that this hoped-for diversity increases stability, or in any way makes for a more functional or less corrupt government once it is formed.”

The specter of Iranian dominance continues to overshadow Iraq, even as Abadi has spent his time in office building alliances with Saudi Arabia and beyond the Middle East, traveling to France, and even Japan.

“Iran is in a strong position,” wrote Zalmay Khalilzad, a former US ambassador to Iraq in the Wall Street Journal.

“It is not evident that Tehran has decided on its preferred candidate for Iraqi prime minister. Major constituencies, including the dominant Shiite Islamists, are divided. Iran’s apparent strategy is to support several groups in the hope that it will be kingmaker in the bargaining over the next Iraqi government.”

‘Between a hammer and an anvil’

Rabih al-Zubaidi, a health food store owner in Baghdad, still remembers what it was like before the fall of Saddam. Those days, he insists, were better.

“We felt security, jobs were available for the people, you could say life was good,” he told CNN. “Right now there’s corruption in the leadership and with the politicians. I think the previous situation was better.”

He points to high unemployment among the country’s youth and endemic corruption within the economy that hampers entrepreneurs.

“If young people want to start a business, the country fights them with taxes, labor inspectors enforce more rules,” he claims. “Abadi is between a hammer and an anvil, between the US, Saudi Arabia and Iran, and don’t expect him to succeed in doing very much.”

“The issues are bigger than Haider al-Abadi,” he said.

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House incumbent loses primary for the first time in the 2018 election cycle

North Carolina’s Rep. Robert Pittenger became the first House incumbent to lose his seat in a primary in the 2018 midterm election cycle, conceding the race Tuesday to conservative pastor Mark Harris.

Pittenger, a 69-year-old Republican who was first elected in 2012, trailed Harris by 2 percentage points with just one precinct left to report.

It was a rematch of their razor-tight 2016 primary, with government spending taking center stage. Harris hammered Pittenger’s vote for the omnibus spending bill, while Pittenger shot back that Harris couldn’t claim to be supportive of President Donald Trump while opposing the measure, which included Trump’s increases in military funding.

The 6th District seat, which stretches southeast of Charlotte, is a battleground in November, and in a sign of Democratic enthusiasm, the party’s leading candidate, 34-year-old Marine veteran Dan McCready, got more than 4,000 more votes in his primary than Pittenger and Harris combined.

Pittenger was the fourth House Republican to lose on Tuesday, though the other three were seeking Senate seats. Reps. Todd Rokita and Luke Messer lost the Senate primary in Indiana, while Rep. Evan Jenkins finished second in the Senate primary in West Virginia.

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Polls close in West Virginia, Indiana, Ohio and North Carolina

Polls have closed in Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio and West Virginia in primary elections that will set the stage for three of the nation’s most competitive Senate races in November’s midterm elections.

The political world is watching West Virginia to see if ex-convict and coal baron Don Blankenship defeats Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and Rep. Evan Jenkins in the Republican race to take on Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin.

There are also GOP Senate primaries in Indiana and Ohio, two other states where President Donald Trump won in 2016 and Democratic incumbents are up for re-election this fall.

In Indiana, self-funding businessman and former state Rep. Mike Braun is taking on the two men his campaign ads have cast as cardboard cutouts: Reps. Todd Rokita and Luke Messer.

The winner will take on Sen. Joe Donnelly in what could be the GOP’s best chance of picking off a Democratic-held seat.

In Ohio, Rep. Jim Renacci takes on self-funding businessman Mike Gibbons in the GOP primary to face Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown.

But the state’s gubernatorial primaries are the main event.

On the Democratic side, Richard Cordray, the former Consumer Financial Protection Bureau head, faces Sen. Bernie Sanders-backed former Rep. Dennis Kucinich. For the Republicans, Attorney General Mike DeWine faces Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor.

House races in Ohio and North Carolina will also get attention on election night.

In Ohio, the primaries for former GOP Rep. Pat Tiberi’s 12th District seat will set up a potentially competitive August special election. In North Carolina, Republican Reps. Robert Pittenger and Walter Jones are attempting to fend off primary challenges.

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Connecticut joins push for presidential popular vote

Connecticut is joining a national drive to effectively elect the president by popular vote.

The state’s legislature passed a bill, pledged to be signed into law by Gov. Dan Malloy, that would bring the state into an arrangement in which states would deliver their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote, regardless of the state’s results.

Once enough states join the agreement — it takes 270 electoral votes to win the presidency — it could have the effect of controlling the Electoral College.

“The vote of every American citizen should count equally, yet under the current system, voters from sparsely populated states are awarded significantly more power than those from states like Connecticut,” Malloy, a Democrat, said in a statement. “This is fundamentally unfair.”

As currently outlined by the Constitution and generally practiced on a state-by-state basis, each state assigns its votes to the Electoral College to the candidate who wins the most votes in a given state.

In most elections, the candidate who clears 270 electoral votes is also the winner of the popular vote, but in 2000 and 2016, the candidate who assumed the presidency — George W. Bush and Donald Trump, respectively — won the Electoral College without a victory in the popular vote.

National Popular Vote, Inc., a group whose stated goal is to establish this agreement, said by its total, Connecticut will mark 172 electors within the agreement. If states with nearly 100 more electors combined join the compact — states such as California, Illinois and New York have already enacted legislation like Connecticut’s, the group says — the Electoral College would elect the president on the basis of the national popular vote.

Dr. John Koza, chairman of the group, told CNN on Monday that the Connecticut bill was an important step in the long road to rearranging the nature of presidential campaigns around a national popular vote.

“This makes it at least possible to put this into effect by 2020 — not likely, but possible,” he said.

Koza said Connecticut would be the first state since Trump’s election to enact legislation joining the popular vote compact.

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Michelle Obama: 2016 election made me concerned for women

Former first lady Michelle Obama on Saturday again criticized the role of women in electing President Donald Trump, suggesting that his victory showed a lack of women’s empowerment.

“In light of this last election, I’m concerned about us, as women, and what we think about ourselves and about each other,” Obama said at the United State of Women summit in Los Angeles. “What is going on in our heads where we let that happen. So I do wonder what are young girls dreaming about, if we’re still there?”

Obama continued, “When the most qualified person running was a woman and look what we did instead, I mean, that says something about where we are, if we as women are still suspicious of one another, if we still have this crazy, crazy bar that we don’t have for men … if we’re not comfortable with the notion that a woman could be our president, compared to what?”

Obama said she believes girls are still being “taught to be perfect” and are held to a higher standard than men.

“I wish that girls could fail as bad as men do and be okay, because let me tell you, watching men fail up, it is frustrating to see a lot of men blow it and win,” Obama said.

It’s not the first time that the former first lady has leveled criticism against female Trump supporters. At a conference in September 2017, Obama said “any woman who voted against Hillary Clinton voted against their own voice.” The 2016 exit poll showed 52% percent of white women, 4% of black women, and 25% of Latina women voted for Trump in the 2016 election.

Speaking on Saturday, Obama dismissed the idea of making her own bid for president in 2020.

“That’s not the answer either,” she said. “When I hear people say ‘you run,’ it’s part of the problem. We still didn’t get ‘Yes, we can’ right. It’s not, ‘Yes, you can,’ it’s ‘Yes, we can.’ And until we get that right, it doesn’t matter who runs.”

“Looking for the next person to run … that’s been our distraction,” Obama continued, saying it would take a collective effort to address the audience’s concerns about the country.

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Michelle Obama: 2016 election made me concerned for women

Former first lady Michelle Obama on Saturday again criticized the role of women in electing President Donald Trump, suggesting that his victory showed a lack of women’s empowerment.

“In light of this last election, I’m concerned about us, as women, and what we think about ourselves and about each other,” Obama said at the United State of Women summit in Los Angeles. “What is going on in our heads where we let that happen. So I do wonder what are young girls dreaming about, if we’re still there?”

Obama continued, “When the most qualified person running was a woman and look what we did instead, I mean, that says something about where we are, if we as women are still suspicious of one another, if we still have this crazy, crazy bar that we don’t have for men … if we’re not comfortable with the notion that a woman could be our president, compared to what?”

Obama said she believes girls are still being “taught to be perfect” and are held to a higher standard than men.

“I wish that girls could fail as bad as men do and be okay, because let me tell you, watching men fail up, it is frustrating to see a lot of men blow it and win,” Obama said.

It’s not the first time that the former first lady has leveled criticism against female Trump supporters. At a conference in September 2017, Obama said “any woman who voted against Hillary Clinton voted against their own voice.” The 2016 exit poll showed 52% percent of white women, 4% of black women, and 25% of Latina women voted for Trump in the 2016 election.

Speaking on Saturday, Obama dismissed the idea of making her own bid for president in 2020.

“That’s not the answer either,” she said. “When I hear people say ‘you run,’ it’s part of the problem. We still didn’t get ‘Yes, we can’ right. It’s not, ‘Yes, you can,’ it’s ‘Yes, we can.’ And until we get that right, it doesn’t matter who runs.”

“Looking for the next person to run … that’s been our distraction,” Obama continued, saying it would take a collective effort to address the audience’s concerns about the country.

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