Regardless of how one chooses to read the outcome of last Saturday’s elections in Iraq, one thing is for sure: Iraqi voters have rejected the status quo and sought fresh political players to take over. Outgoing prime minister Haider Al Abadi, whose Victory List wooed disenchanted Sunni voters as well as Shiites, lost most of his base to two opposing coalitions: An anti-Iran, anti-United States alliance of Islamists, secularists and Communists, led by nationalist Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr, and a pro-Iran list led by the head of the controversial Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), Hadi Al Ameri. The latter spearheaded the fight against Daesh, but his militias were accused of carrying out atrocities against Sunnis in Nineveh and Salahuddin provinces.
Despite low voter turnout and allegations of rigging, especially in the Kurdish provinces, those voting for Al Sadr’s Revolutionaries for Reform Alliance (Al Sairoon) were shunning ethno-sectarian politics and rejecting foreign meddling in Iraqi affairs. It was stunning that his euphoric supporters were calling for the ousting of Iran right in the heart of Baghdad the day after the elections.
Al Sadr, 44, is an enigmatic and maverick leader followed by millions, especially in the impoverished neighbourhoods of Baghdad. His now-disbanded militia had fought the US military following the 2003 invasion. At one point, he had taken refuge in Iran, but returned to defy the divisive politics of pro-Tehran, disgraced former prime minister Nouri Al Maliki. He was among the first leaders to denounce the quota system that had deepened sectarian tensions and sidelined Sunnis, Kurds and minorities. Coming from a revered religious family that had opposed oppression during the Saddam Hussain era, he is now seen as an Iraqi and Arab nationalist who rejects Iranian and US meddling in Iraqi affairs. He had supported Al Maliki’s successor, Al Abadi, who also rejected identity politics, vowed to fight rampant corruption and waged war against Daesh.
Al Sadr’s victory is important. His list came first in Baghdad, which has maximum seats, and at least eight other provinces. Although he says he is not interested in a political position, he is now seen as kingmaker — the person who will decide who will become Iraq’s next prime minister. While he said he will support Al Abadi for a second term, the latter’s poor performance will become a factor. As things stand now, not one list can form a government on its own. The coming weeks will witness intense negotiations and horse trading to form blocs and alliances that can muster enough support on the floor of the parliament and win a confidence vote.
Al Sadr may still back Al Abadi and he is likely to have the support of the Al Hikma movement as well, led by Ammar Al Hakim, a moderate Shiite leader. The three will need the support of Sunni and Kurdish alliances and individuals. If they succeed, then Iraqis will be on the verge of a major departure from the divisive political system installed by the Americans.
But Iran still has allies who will work to derail the emerging political power. Al Ameri, who came in second, has the support of hardline Shiite voters in most southern provinces. Already he is said to be negotiating with Al Maliki and Al Abadi, under the aegis of Iran’s strongman General Qassem Sulaimani, to form a united bloc in parliament. Al Abadi will be risking his legacy if he decides to join hands with Al Ameri and Al Maliki.
Emerging centrist bloc
One major broker in all this will be the head of the Shiite religious (marja) institution in Najaf; Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani. His influence over Iraqi Shiites is considerable and he is likely to back the emerging centrist bloc being set up by Al Sadr and his allies. He had asked voters not to elect those who were tried before and failed.
Al Sadr’s success underlines a new reality in Iraq: That a growing number of Iraqis are tired of sectarian confrontations and want stability, security and economic recovery. Al Maliki’s track record is dismal. Under his watch, Daesh took over 40 per cent of Iraq and was few kilometres from Baghdad. His role in any bloc will be toxic at best. Al Ameri will continue to rely on Iran’s support and he may emerge as the head of the opposition if he fails to form a government.
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The US role remains crucial as well. The animosity between Al Sadr and Washington should not overshadow his bloc’s determination to stamp out sectarian divides and set the country on the path of reconstruction. Last year, he had reached out to Saudi Arabia, as did Al Abadi, and both remain Iraq’s best hope at this juncture.
But Iraq remains part of a power struggle between Iran and the US. The latest US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal has heightened regional tensions. What most Iraqis hope for is that their country, emerging from a brutal war against Daesh, will not be sucked into the vortex of regional strife.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.