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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

Rise of Moqtada Al Sadr upsets US calculations in Iraq

Shiite cleric's bloc leads in early election results, with Washington ally Haider Al Abadi in third position

Iraqis celebrate with a picture of Moqtada Al Sadr in Baghdad on May 14, 2018, as the Shiite cleric's alliance emerged as the leader in preliminary results from the general election. Ahmad Al Rubaye / AFP
Iraqis celebrate with a picture of Moqtada Al Sadr in Baghdad on May 14, 2018, as the Shiite cleric's alliance emerged as the leader in preliminary results from the general election. Ahmad Al Rubaye / AFP

The clear lead established by Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr in preliminary results from Iraq's election is not the outcome Washington had hoped for, but is not the worst possible scenario either, experts say.

Final results are expected by Tuesday, but the rise of the renegade cleric is the emerging headline from Iraq’s fourth election since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, and the first since the defeat of ISIS last year.

While Mr Al Sadr's victory is not a win for the United States, it is not one for Iran either, and Washington’s focus now will be on coalition formation in the 329-seat-parliament, as neither Mr Al Sadr nor his rivals hold a clear majority, experts and former US officials told The National.

James Jeffrey, a former US ambassador to Iraq and a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said: "The US has not had a good day in Iraq, because [its ally] Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi has had a bad day”.

But, he said: “Iran has not had a good day either, because [its allies] Nouri Al Maliki and Hadi Al Ameri did not make enough gains to form a governing coalition."

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Read more: Iraqi PM ready to 'cooperate' after election upset

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The preliminary results show the Sadrists getting about 54 seats, with Mr Al Ameri’s bloc coming second, and Mr Al Abadi a close third.

The rise of Mr Al Sadr is no surprise to Mr Jeffrey. Over the years, he has watched the religious nationalist leader build a movement that caters to working-class Shiites, but is at the heart of opposition to a US presence in Iraq.

“He has done fairly well in past elections, his troops fought against ISIS, the Sadrists are the most disciplined, and have done outreach to Iraqi Sunnis,” Mr Jeffrey said.

The main loser from the Sadrists’ comeback could be former prime minister Mr Al Maliki. Back in 2012, Mr Al Sadr formed an alliance with Ayad Allawi in an attempt to overthrow the then prime minister and Mr Al Sadr's Mahdi Army fought a war with Iraqi security forces under Mr Al Maliki in 2008.

The next step for Mr Al Sadr is to form a parliamentary coalition to pick a prime minister, although he himself is not eligible as he did not stand for election.

The cleric, who went into exile in Iran from 2008 to 2011, has recently built bridges with Iraq’s Arab neighbours. His visits to Saudi Arabia and the UAE last year combined with a nationalist message that resonates with Sunni tribes, could go a long way in helping him form a coalition.

“If the current results were to hold, Moqtada would be the big winner,” said Daniel Serwer, a scholar at the Middle East Institute.

“I also think Moqtada is more likely to join forces with Mr Al Abadi than with Mr Al Ameri, but it is far too early to predict the outcome of government formation negotiations,” he told The National.

What does this all mean for the US? Mr Serwer said Washington “will need to swallow hard and accept it, especially if the alternative is an Abadi-Ameri or Moqtada-Ameri coalition”.

The main goal for the US post-election should be the inclusion of the Sunnis and the Kurds in the political process, said Mr Serwer.

For Mr Jeffrey, it should be containment of Iran and preventing Tehran from further entrenching itself in Iraqi politics.