Iraq: Between an American rock and an Iranian hard place

What does al-Sadr’s victory mean for Iraq amid growing U.S.-Iranian tensions?

Iraqi Shi'ite Muslim leader Moqtada al-Sadr gestures as he delivers a speech over US President Donald Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, in Baghdad, Iraq December 7, 2017. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Iraqi Shi'ite Muslim leader Moqtada al-Sadr gestures as he delivers a speech over US President Donald Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, in Baghdad, Iraq December 7, 2017.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Firebrand Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a staunch opponent of the United States, appears to have secured victory for his Sairoon Alliance in Iraq’s May 12 parliamentary elections. The vote was the first in the country since the Islamic State terrorist group was defeated and fourth since Saddam Hussein was toppled.
Al-Sadr’s alliance—made up of the Sadrist Movement and Iraq’s Communist Party—secured more than 1.3 million votes, translating into 56 seats in the 329-member parliament, according to the Iraqi electoral commission. The election was somewhat marred by a low turn-out of only 45 percent of all eligible voters.
Al-Sadr’s victory defied early indications that incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi would emerge victorious. In a surprise turn of events, al-Abadi instead ended up placing third with more than 1 million votes (46 seats), behind Shiite militia chief Hadi al-Amiri’s alliance, which received more than 1.2 million ballots (54 seats). Former prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, a close ally of al-Amiri, came in fourth with about 25 seats.
Al-Sadr rose to prominence following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, when he directed his Shiite force, the Mehdi Army, to attack American troops on two separate occasions. Accordingly, then-president George W. Bush considered al-Sadr an enemy and even reportedly devised a plan to eliminate him.
Since then, al-Sadr has maintained a deep suspicion of foreign intervention in Iraqi affairs. And while he has moderated somewhat his stance on US meddling in the country, al-Sadr is the only Shiite cleric to distance himself from Iran, whose grip over Baghdad is tightening.
In response, Iranian officials publically opposed al-Sadr’s bloc, with Ali Akbar Velayati, a top adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, having declared that “we [the Iranians] will not allow liberals and communists to govern in Iraq." Further complicating matters are ongoing tensions between Iran and the US following President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal earlier this month. “The US and Iran have competing interests in Iraq,” Nathaniel Rabkin Managing Editor of Inside Iraqi Politics, a political newsletter published in Amman, stressed to The Media Line. “This means that a lot of the key factions that will be driving the process of forming a government would prefer to keep the US-Iran conflict out of Iraqi politics as much as they can.”
Rabkin added that much will depend on what kind of role al-Sadr chooses to play. Notably, the cleric did not personally compete in the elections, instead preferring to brand himself as the spiritual leader of his movement; this, despite being involved in all aspects of the political decision-making process.
“Al-Sadr has never held public office in Iraq and I don’t think he is about to change that,” Rabkin noted, adding that "this is a smart move on his part because he is aware that being prime minister of Iraq is a very difficult job that presents a lot of challenges. For skilled politicians the risk of failure is very high. So he probably prefers not to carry that burden on his own.”
According to many analysts, an Iraqi government headed by the Sadrists can be expected to promote a hardline nationalism that reinforces Iraq's independence from external actors.
However, Rabkin qualified, “while al-Sadr is well known for his anti-American rhetoric, we shall see how if behaves differently when in power and when it comes to the future of Iraq’s democratic system.”
Owen Holdaway, a freelance journalist based in Iraq, contends that had al-Abadi performed better, the Iraqi government would likely have continued its pro-American stance.
“But this election was fought more on domestic matters,” he told The Media Line. “Foreign relations—although important—have taken very much a secondary role. Iraq has a lot of issues to deal with, particularly in reconstruction, institutional failures, and endemic corruption. That will be very much the focus of whatever government comes in.”
Whereas al-Sadr is perhaps not Tehran's first choice, the Iranian regime nonetheless "do see him as someone who they can work with," according to Rabkin. “They will be devoting a lot of effort over the next few weeks and months to figure out what al-Sadr wants and what his closest advisers, friends and allies want for Iraq.”
Holdaway believes that more will be known once the parliament is fully formed, which will require complex negotiations between competing alliances over the next few weeks.
“But al-Sadr will be a major power-broker between who will take over,” he concluded.
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