Maverick cleric's election upset could rattle U.S.-Iraq relations

Washington Post

The surprisingly strong showing of a ticket backed by maverick cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in Iraqi elections over the weekend will force U.S. officials to recalculate how best to pursue American interests in the region at an especially sensitive moment.

Sadr is a ferocious critic of American policies in the Middle East, and his unexpected electoral haul immediately calls into question the continuing presence of U.S. troops in Iraq. But his spokesman said Sadr supports honoring commitments between Iraq and the United States concerning the training of Iraq's security forces and weapons purchases as long as they serve Iraq's interests and there "is no interference on the sovereignty of Iraq."

Sadr's ticket won the most seats in Iraq's parliamentary election, according to results from all 18 provinces released Monday, placing him in the best position to select the country's next prime minister and set the course for how the nation emerges from a costly war against the Islamic State.

His ascendancy comes at the expense of incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, the preferred candidate of the United States, who came in third.

The Shiite cleric first gained international notice as a young militia leader who fought U.S. troops after the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

But Sadr has grown increasingly pragmatic over the years and formed a cross-sectarian electoral alliance emphasizing Iraqi nationalism over loyalty to Iranian clerics and American military and political backing. He has also broken ranks with Iraq's Shiite establishment by denouncing Iran's involvement in Syria's civil war and its bid for expanded influence in Iraq.

"He's the only politician with a clear vision for Iraq," said a Western diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity to give a frank assessment of Sadr. "Iraq first, eradicate corruption and a technocratic government."

Sadr is distrusted by both the United States and Iran for his active opposition to both countries. He has balked, for instance, at Iran's efforts to extend its influence through military assistance and political backing of hard-line Shiite politicians. Like the United States, Iran will now also have to recalibrate how to advance its interests in Iraq, where Sadr's independence has made him attractive to some of Iran's rivals in the Arab world.

Tensions in the region have mounted - and in particular between the United States and Iran - partly because of President Donald Trump's decision last week to withdraw the United States from the nuclear deal with Tehran.

Sadr surprised allies and opponents alike with his strong showing across the majority of Iraqi provinces, where voters responded to his message of fighting corruption and reforming Iraq's patronage-heavy political system.

Analysts say he also benefited from his ability to command a fiercely loyal base in an election that saw historically low turnout.

Sadr's electoral list, however, fell far short of a majority. That would offer a lifeline to Abadi, if he can work out an agreement with Sadr and other reform-minded parties that won handfuls of seats. How the vote tally translates into parliamentary seats will be announced later this week, Iraq's election commission said.

Abadi's supporters and opponents had considered his ticket the most likely to prevail in the election and secure him a second term as prime minister.

Though Abadi is a Shiite, he performed poorly in Iraq's Shiite heartland but made history by becoming the only incumbent to ever win Sunni-majority Mosul. As a result, he can argue that he is the only credible politician representing a "national coalition" - but he would so from a much weaker position, said Kirk Sowell, the publisher of Inside Iraqi Politics, an influential newsletter.

"Abadi will be entirely dependent on Sadr for his reelection now," Sowell said.

Abadi has clearly supported the presence of U.S. troops. The Pentagon has seen a continuing role for U.S. forces in preventing a resurgence of the Islamic State, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told Congress last month that he would support a residual force if the Iraqi government agreed to the presence. At the same hearing, Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the U.S. military learned its lesson by departing Iraq too hastily in late 2011 and allowing the Islamic State to grow.

The Pentagon and U.S. Central Command, which oversees the Middle East, declined to say Monday how the outcome of the Iraqi election could impact the presence of American troops. "We continue to operate to defeat ISIS for the long-term and continue to support the Iraqi national security forces and help them to become a self-sufficient, sustainable entity," said Eric Pahon, a spokesman for the Defense Department.

Though Sadr's ticket, called Sairoon, or Marching Forward, defied expectations in Saturday's election, this was the culmination of a very public evolution. The scion of a respected family of Shiite scholars, he was once derided as unlearned and brutish by fellow Shiite public figures.

He inherited a massive base of supporters from his father, who opposed former Pres. Saddam Hussein and was later assassinated for his activism. A sprawling Baghdad slum called Saddam City was later named Sadr City in the elder Sadr's honor following the U.S. invasion.

During the American occupation, the younger Sadr headlined the United States' list of public enemies in Iraq after he amassed a militia called the Mahdi Army to fight U.S. troops and Sunni insurgents. After the U.S. withdrawal in 2011, Sadr renamed the militia the Peace Brigades and mustered its members to protect Shiite shrines during the Islamic State onslaught. Meanwhile, he worked to rebrand himself from flamethrower to centrist.

In 2016, he latched onto a popular protest movement against corruption that demanded political reforms. He bolstered the demonstrations with his thousands of supporters and built ties with secular parties. He showed his political muscle by ordering his supporters to break into and occupy Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, where the majority of Iraq's politicians live and the location of the U.S. Embassy. Though Sadr ostensibly backed Abadi's calls for reform, the breach embarrassed the prime minister and forced him to shuffle his cabinet.

Sadr refashioned his public image by embracing reforms calling for technocrat ministers to replace a cabinet stocked with appointees based on sect and party. His own followers who held ministries and seats in parliament had long been implicated in mismanagement and corruption, which squandered Iraq's oil wealth.

To counter that stigma, Sadr executed the type of populist gambit he has become known for. Ahead of the election, he forbade any of the 34 lawmakers from his bloc from seeking reelection and stocked his ticket instead with a diverse list of communists, secular candidates, Sunnis and a handful of Islamists.

"It was a smart move he made by presenting all new candidates and mixing them with the communists," said Ahmed al-Mayali, a political scientist at Baghdad University. "That convinced many people that are not his followers he is the best choice."

Sowell said Sadr also benefited from pervasive frustration over Iraq's stagnant politics. That disenchantment was reflect in the 44 percent turnout for Saturday's election.

"Sadr has spent the last three years rebranding himself as a non-Islamist champion of the fight against corruption and sectarian representation. The alliance with the secularists was an important part of that," he said. "Amid other groups not voting, it turned out to be key that Sadr was able to expand his coalition while still maintaining his base."

In a speech broadcast on Iraqi state television on Monday, Abadi said he accepted the results of the ballot and is willing to work with any coalition to form a representative government. His statement reverses years of election results being disputed by rival candidates.

Abadi's campaign stressed his management of the nearly four-year war to oust the Islamic State from Iraq's cities and towns and the rebuilding of the Iraqi military. He also held out the promise of inclusive representation and a reversal to 15 years of sectarian bloodletting.

Ammar Toma, an incumbent member of parliament running on Abadi's ticket, said that the poor result has "surprised me on a personal level" but that he remained confident that Abadi could retain his seat on the strength of his win in Mosul.

Jaffar al-Musawi, a spokesman for Sadr, said that his movement is closest in its cross-sectarian character and reformist platform to Abadi's ticket and that Sadr would only decline forming a coalition with "those who were tried by the Iraqi people . . . and failed."

His comments appeared to rule out allying with the second- and fourth-place finishers in the race.

An electoral ticket led by the powerful leader of an Iran-backed Shiite militia, Hadi al-Ameri, won the second-highest number of seats, likely setting them up to form an opposition bloc in parliament allied with established Iraqi politicians like the fourth-place finisher, former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki.

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