By Anchal Vohra
A firebrand Shiite cleric and America’s old foe, Muqtada al-Sadr, has emerged as the strongest political leader in Iraq after his bloc garnered the highest number of seats in the general elections last week. He backed the Sairoon list of candidates who scored a total of 75 seats—20 more than the last elections in 2018.
Muqtada al-Sadr, 47, is the son of Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, who was a stalwart opposition figure in Iraqi politics during Saddam Hussein’s time and was allegedly assassinated on Hussein’s orders.
Soon after America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, Muqtada capitalised on the family name and formed a militia called Mahdi army to challenge the American troops. The same militia was also accused of massacring Sunnis at one point in a sectarian conflict.
Over the last several years, since he disbanded the militia and formed what he called ‘peace brigades,’ the cleric has brandished himself as a nationalist—opposed to both American presence and Iran’s influence exerted by militias and political groups that it backs. Sadr has also gained support amongst communists and Sunnis in the country by promising jobs and an end to corruption.
Soon after the results were announced, Sadr addressed the concerns of the masses regarding economic deterioration of the war-ravaged country, whilst the political elite squabbled over personal gains and split them on sectarian bases.
“It is the day of the victory of reform over corruption. The day of the people’s victory over occupation, normalisation, militias, poverty, injustice, and enslavement,” he said. “It is a day when sectarianism, ethnicity, and partisanship were defeated. It is the day of Iraq and we are the servants of the Iraqi people.”
While Sadr’s candidates increased the tally, Iran-backed Fatah Alliance faced a drubbing in the elections. It saw its parliament seats reduced from 48 in 2018 to between 12–14 this time.
Fatah Alliance, also referred to as the Conquest Alliance, is a coalition of Iran-backed militias called Hashd al-Shaabi or the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) which fought the terrorist organisation, ISIS, and later became a part of Iraq’s army. In 2018, Fatah was formed to fight elections with the idea of converting gains in the battlefield into success in the political arena. It is led by Hadi al-Amiri, the leader of the Badr organisation, the most powerful militia backed by Iran.
Experts said that the verdict revealed a shift in the Shiite majority country, where—albeit most people seem to still trust a Shiite cleric—they prefer a nationalist and someone who is no longer a polarising figure.
Tehran’s man, however, refused to accept the results and alluded that the militias might resort to violence. “We will not accept these fabricated results, whatever the price, and we will defend the votes of our candidates and voters with full force,” he reportedly told Al-Sumaria TV—a local TV station.
Iraq was engulfed in protests in 2019, in which hundreds of protestors were shot dead. Iraqis demanded to replace the old sect-based power sharing system with a technocratic government that ushers in reforms and improves the quality of life of people.
An election law was passed that increased constituencies from 18 to 83, to enable more independent candidates to contest. Despite major issues—including threat to life—at least 10 independent candidates won in Baghdad and Shiite-dominated southern provinces of Iraq.
But a government can only be formed through consensus in Iraq and any political party or alliance must have a majority of the 329 seats in parliament to choose a prime minister and form a government.
Experts said negotiations could go on for months before Sadr can pull together at least 165 MPs and that it is nearly impossible for him to achieve that number without including candidates supportive of Iran.
They added that Iran has more friends than the Fatah Alliance to bank on, including parties that have been traditionally close to Iran. Few doubt that Tehran will force them with all its might to drive a hard bargain to ensure it has its allies in important positions.
The United States and Gulf Arab states are hoping that Sadr can be persuaded to accept the return of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi as a consensus candidate. Mr Kadhimi recently facilitated talks between arch-rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia in Baghdad and is seen as someone who can balance their influence in Iraq while also keeping the West and the Gulf at ease. But the people of Iraq who were desperate for a complete change and a new start, will have to wait longer.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).