Sunni leaders have called for the vote to be delayed until after displaced Iraqis return home
Iraq PM forms alliance with powerful Shiite militias in lead-up to elections
The Iraqi prime minister announced on Sunday that he will lead a "cross-sectarian" list in the upcoming general elections.
Haider Al Abadi, a Shiite Muslim who led the country in the four-year war against ISIL, said he will seek to form a cross-sectarian block called Nasr Al Iraq — or The Victory Alliance — to contest the parliamentary elections, with candidates from other communities.
"The Victory Alliance will boost the country's integrity and national sovereignty, correct mistakes and achieve justice and equality for all Iraqis," Mr Al Abadi said in a statement late on Saturday, adding that the "miracle of victory and unity must lead to a new and brighter era".
Mr Al Abadi reached an agreement with Al Fatih coalition, a group of powerful Shiite militias led by Hadi Al Ameri, to jointly participate in the elections as Nasr Al Iraq.
This, added the prime minister, would "transcend sectarianism, discrimination and segregation".
Nasr Al Iraq brings together the most powerful political and armed Shiite factions that fought alongside the Iraqi army under the Hashed Al Shaabi umbrella group, also known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces. Hashed Al Shaabi formed in 2014 after Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, Iraq's top Shiite cleric, urged citizens to take up arms against ISIL militants.
Michael Rubin, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based think tank, said Mr Al Abadi's decision to form Nasr Al Iraq posed a threat to Iraqi democracy.
“For Abadi, it's a pragmatic choice but it's also a bad sign for the long-term integrity of Iraq's democracy," he told The National.
"By bringing the Al Fatih bloc into what Abadi has named "The Victory Coalition", he denies their support to (former Iraqi prime minister) Nouri Al Maliki."
In November, Mr Al Abadi banned militia leaders from running in the elections, saying there should be a “clear separation between political and armed groups”. Many militia leaders subsequently formally resigned from positions in armed groups.
The Hashed's militias are mostly trained and supported by Iran and remain deeply divisive, with some accused of abuses against civilians.
Senior Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr, meanwhile, said he was "surprised" about Mr Al Abadi's alliance with Mr Al Ameri, adding that it would "pave the way for the return of corruption and sectarianism".
The prime minister's main opponent is expected to be Mr Al Maliki, who served as prime minister for eight years before stepping down in 2014. Mr Al Maliki, who currently serves as one of three vice presidents and is head of the Shiite Dawa party, is a close ally of Iran.
He was widely criticised by Iraqi politicians for the army's collapse when ISIL swept through a third of the country in the summer of 2014. He was also accused of alienating Iraq's Sunni minority and for pursuing sectarian policies.
Mr Al Abadi assumed office in September 2014. Since then, Iraqi forces backed by a US-led coalition have gradually retaken all of the territory once held by the extremists.
Both Mr Al Abadi and Mr Al Maliki are members of the Dawa party but on Saturday the former prime minister announced that he would run separately at the head of his State of Law list.
“[The fact that] Maliki and Abadi may go their separate ways simply confirms the split which exists between "London" Dawa and "Tehran" Dawa; that is, the different groupings within Dawa based on where party members spent their decades of exile during Saddam Hussein's reign,” Mr Rubin said.
In response, the Dawa party said its supporters could choose between the two coalitions.
“While multiple Dawas may run in elections, they can always reunite during government formation,” Mr Rubin added.
The Iraqi cabinet has proposed May 12 for elections, though the date still needs to be approved by parliament. Sunni leaders have called for the vote to be delayed in order to allow the almost three million people displaced by the fighting to return to their homes but Mr Al Abadi's government has insisted the elections be held on time.
The prime minister's office is reserved for Iraq's majority Shiite Arab community under a power-sharing system set up after the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. The office of president is reserved for a Kurdish member of parliament and the speaker of parliament is drawn from Sunni Arab MPs.