Iraq: Sadr in the lead

Summary: Iraqi elections unexpectedly show Muqtada al-Sadr in the lead, which will be unwelcome to both Washington and Tehran. Coalition forming won’t be easy.

The elections in Iraqi appear to have been conducted successfully, with no violent incidents reported. Turnout was 44.5%, not surprisingly much lower than in previous polls given the turmoil which has displaced so many Iraqis, above all the rise and fall of IS (considered in our posting of 7 May).

A BBC report lists the three main alliances as follows: we have added the names of the leaders, all of them Shia, and an alternative translation for Sadr’s alliance:

  • The Sa’irun (Marching Towards Reform / On the Move) list – an alliance between Muqtada al-Sadr’s Istiqama (Integrity) party and six mostly secular groups, including the Iraqi communist party – has the most votes in six provinces
  • Fatah (Conquest) – an alliance that comprises the political wings of militias in the Shia-led paramilitary Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation) force and is led by former Transport Minister Hadi al-Amiri – is ahead in four provinces
  • The Nasr (Victory) Alliance of Haidar al-Abadi is in third place

There is a list of results as of 1 PM yesterday 14 May here. Later results are not expected to change the big picture.

Media reports have highlighted the unexpected success of Muqtada al-Sadr, who obtained 55 seats, the largest of any group. He himself did not stand in the election and therefore will not become Prime Minister. Reuters comments that “his almost certain victory puts him in a position to pick someone for the job.” But everything will depend on coalition building – even a grand alliance of the three main groups (not expected) would have only 145 seats, well short of a majority which would require 165.

A Wall Street Journal report (behind a pay wall) comments that, if the vote was seen as a contest between the US and Iran for influence in Iraq, both face the prospect that “a frequent critic of both is poised to take the lead in selecting Iraq’s next premier.” Reuters comments that “Sadr has led two uprisings against U.S. forces in Iraq and is one of the few Shi’ite leaders to distance himself from Iran”, and in another report that “He reached out to dispossessed Shi’ites and marginalised Sunnis, and restored links with Sunni neighbours while keeping Iran at bay.” Sadr visited Saudi Arabia and the UAE last summer meeting both crown princes, visits which were  interpreted as an attempt to counterbalance Iran’s influence in Iraq.

Moqtada Sadr.jpg

Although he is a cleric, always seen in his black turban, Sadr is not a leading cleric and is primarily a politician. His father was a leading and greatly respected cleric, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, who broke Iraqi clerical tradition by playing an active part in politics and was murdered for opposing Saddam Hussein.

The 14 May article below is from the Anti-War website by its editor Jason Ditz.

Iraq’s Sadr Gained Ground as Independent Voice in a Sea of US, Iran Allies

Sadr Stakes Out Anti-Corruption and Anti-Militia Position

Preliminary results of the Saturday Iraq election show a major victory for cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s bloc, which has secured a plurality estimated at 54-55 seats. While going from that to a 165-seat majority is a long road, Sadr’s election performance, and decisive victory in Baghdad district, shows a major shift in Iraqi politics.

Multiple Shi’ite blocs dominate Iraq’s political scene, and are historically all cozy with the nation’s two main allies, Iran and the US. Sadr, by contrast, has staked out an independent, nationalist position. He’s positioned himself as the anti-corruption and anti-militia leader for Iraq, something very different from the other leaders.

This is going to make forming a coalition with another big bloc difficult, as Amiri’s bloc is very pro-militia, and Maliki’s State of Law bloc has been the target of a lot of the corruption complaints. Prime Minister Hayder Abadi’s faction may be a possibility, as Sadr has said it’s possible they could form a government together.

A Sadr-led government could be a big change in Iraq’s regional alignment. While Sadr is unlikely to totally disavow any of Iraq’s allies, both the US and Iran will be sad to see more easily controlled leaders replaced with more independent ones, and that could have a long-term drag on relations. Sadr is also an opponent of the US having troops in Iraq, and could push to end that open-ended deployment.

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