Whoever forms Iraq’s next government will run the country according to the vision of the rising political leader, Moqtada Al Sadr. Leading his new Sa’iroon (March On) alliance, the young Shiite politician has already gained the title of ‘King Maker’ not because his alliance has won most seats in the new Council of Representatives (Parliament), but for the courage and vision he has shown during the election campaign. Some of world affairs watchers began to liken his movement to that of President Emanuel Macron’s French La Republique En Marche party.
However, as the final election’s results are fully declared, the task ahead for Al Sadr is intrinsically colossal. The most strenuous obstacle he’ll be facing is to overcome the direct Iranian interference in running Iraq’s government. Before the election, Tehran had publicly announced it would not allow Al Sadr’s alliance to govern. Just as the counting of ballot boxes concluded, the commander of foreign operations of Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), General Qasim Sulaimani, was holding talks with politicians in Baghdad to ensure that any new cabinet must enjoy Iran’s consent.
Sulaimani is a highly influential figure in Iraq and Tehran has become the de facto authority in the country after the power vacuum created by Barack Obama administration’s decision to pull out from Iraq almost eight years ago. Immediately after the election results were announced, Al Sadr tweeted: “Reform is victorious, and corruption is diminishing.” Many have interpreted the tweet as an indirect message the increasingly confident Al Sadr, to the Iranians and their Iraqi protegees.
Though Al Sadr is not expected to get involved into confrontation with the Iranians in his country, he is likely to play a balancing role in shaping up politics in Iraq for the next four years. He surely understands how vital Iraq is for the success of Iran’s enterprise in the region. Many believe that Iraq is, for Iran’s regional strategy, much more important than Syria, Lebanon or Yemen is. Al Sadr himself cannot become prime minister as he did not run in the election, but his bloc’s victory puts him in a position to have a strong say in negotiations during the next three months.
His alliance came first in the election as it captured 54 of the parliamentary 329 seats. This is 20 more seats than what the alliance had in 2014 election. the newly established Fatah bloc led by Hadi Al Amiri, well known for his close ties with Iran and personal loyalty to Sulaimani, came second with 47 seats. Al Amiri is the leader of the powerful Iran-backed “Popular Mobilisation Forces” (PMF), the largest militia in Iraq after the country’s national army. PMF is structured along Iran’s IRGC militia. The incumbent prime minister, Haidar Al Abadi’s Nasr (Victory) coalition, took third place with 42 seats.
The biggest loser in the election was Iran’s staunchest ally former prime minister, Nouri Al Maliki, whose “State of Law” coalition’s representation in the new parliament fell from 92 to 25 seats. The fifth Shiite group is the National Wisdom Movement (Al Hikma) led by Imam Ammar Al Hakim, won 19 seats, down from 29 in last election. The non-sectarian list Al Wataniya (Nationalist), led by former prime minister, Eyad Allawi kept its 19-seat share in the new parliament. The two main Kurdish groups, Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan Party (PUK), won 25 and 18 seats successively. The Sunni region political group “Muttahidoon” (Uniters) alliance led by Usama Al Nujayfi, won 14 seats down from 19.
Constitutionally, Iraq premiership goes to the Shiites, the Sunnis get the speaker post and the presidency goes to the Kurds.
Iraq’s election could be a turning point for the country after 15 years of continuous state stagnation. Al Sadr success is a fresh air in Iraq’s political arena which might provide the necessary conditions to improve the performance of the country’s government. But Al Sadr, who established his leadership after leading two violent uprisings against US troops, was clearly side lined for years by Iranian-backed rivals.
That is why his latest success in the election is considered a challenge against his powerful Shiite opponents who have been in the seat of government for long time and who have been accused by large section of Iraqis — including Al Sadr himself — of widespread corruption. Al Sadr’s bloc, an unorthodox one of communists and secular individuals — including a Kurd candidate from Masoud Barzani’s KDP who ran in his list- made its ferocious opposition to any foreign intervention in Iraq clear, be it from Tehran or Washington.
However, post-election reality would make Al Sadr task acutely difficult. He has not only led a fierce campaign against the ruling elites, but he uniquely presented himself as an independent politician in contradiction with the country’s Shiite populace. He was openly critical of Iran’s role in Iraq’s politics, he called on Syria’s president, Bashar Al Assad to step down and he was meeting senior officials in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi when their confrontation with Tehran in Yemen was at its peak.
Al Sadr is now facing an unprecedented situation where he may find himself in charge of deciding who would become the next prime minister in Iraq. The new prime minister would not be from Al Sadr list nor his alliance as the premiership position is mostly decided by the other Shiite groups of which Al Sadr’s is not a part. But this time round, Al Sadr as a winner in the election, is likely to use his input in naming the next prime minister. Al Abadi is so far the candidate to fill this position, but he is expected to be a ‘different Al Abadi’ from the Al Abadi who had governed the country during the last four years, i.e. less Iranian and more open to the rest of Iraq’s neighbours.
Like all leaders of the Shiite parliamentarian groups, Al Sadr is not necessarily anti-Iran, but he is comparatively a pragmatic leader who succeeded in forming a wide-ranging alliance based on the understanding that Iraq’s national interests come first. If he can maintain this vision he may keep Iran at arm’s length.
Mustapha Karkouti is a columnist and former president of the Foreign Press Association, London. Twitter: @mustaphatache