Iraqi Shiite militia leader becomes kingmaker after elections

ISTANBUL- In an upset for Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi’s Victory List, the Sa’iroon alliance of Moqtada Al-Sadr – a Shiite cleric, who 14 years ago ran a militia against U.S. troops – and Iraqi communists held the lead Monday night in six of Iraq’s 18 provinces and came in second in four others.

Al-Abadi struck a conciliatory tone despite his thrashing at the polls in hopes he could keep his post in coalition negotiations aimed at excluding Iranian-backed militia leader, Hadi Al-Ameri and his Conquest Alliance from dominating Iraqi politics.
“We are ready to work and cooperate in forming the strongest government for Iraq that’s free of corruption,” Mr. Al-Abadi said.

While the poor showing by Mr. Abadi and his electoral allies may jeopardize an additional term, hundreds of thousands of uncounted votes could alter the final result in his favor.

Full results were due to be officially announced late Monday and the early ballots of some 700,000 security personnel and diaspora remain uncounted, meaning Mr. Al-Abadi could still get a boost.

The electoral sweep for Sairoon – a youth-oriented bloc that emphasized social inequality over sectarian grievances – puts the 44 year-old Sadr, often called an Arab nationalist and thus an opponent of both the US and Iran, in a position to determine Iraq's next leader.

Sadr has led two uprisings against U.S. forces in Iraq and the U.S. once labeled him and his Mehdi army as the greatest threat to Iraqi stability.

Because he was not on the ballot as candidate himself, Mr. Sadr is prevented from leading the next government.
But the strong showing in early returns underscored the frustration that voters had with the prior governments.

“Most of the candidates in this coalition were new and didn't’ participate in the political process before,” said Amer Ahmed, 30 an employee of the Iraqi electric company and a Sa’iroon supporter. “The young generation basically formed their own electoral list…we will transform the government and society.”

In a country where the median age is 19, only 20 of the 328 Iraqi lawmakers in the outgoing legislature are under the age of 40.

Still, that voter frustration also translated into the lowest turnout since Iraq was invaded by the US 15 years ago. Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission said turnout was 44.52 percent, significantly lower than in previous elections.
Regardless of the participation rate, analysts said regional strategic implications of the results are significant.

Sadr, a Shiite leader was the unlikely beneficiary of Saudi largesse in an attempt to dilute the strength of Tehran's pick -- Al Ameri's Fateh group.

Just a year ago Al-Fateh fielded ex-fighters from Iranian-backed militias to battle Islamic State alongside Iraq’s struggling national army and US supported Kurdish peshmerga forces and Al Ameri reaped electoral benefits among Shiite hardliners for “protecting the honor” of Iraq.

"The biggest surprise was the lead of Sa'iroon rather than Al-Abadi's List, it is an obvious indicator of the American-Saudi support to Sa'iroon,' said said Ali Bashar, a political scientist at Bayan University in Irbil. 'They contained contradicting ideological parties, like communists and liberals, under a single frame, non-Islamic in appearance, although it is."

Some fear the results put Iraq squarely in the middle of Washington-Tehran disputes, especially because of President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the deal with Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany to contain Iran’s nuclear program.

“Personally, I am afraid of the psychological instability of this man [Sadr] and his stances waver too easily,” said Abderrezak Al-Nuaimi, 33, year Baghdad physician. “It’s going to be difficult to get together a coalition. I think the winning List of Sadrists might forced to form a narrow government by themselves unless the Americans prepare the ground carefully.”

Other Iraqis worry that a breakdown in coalition talks could lead to more violence as party politics turns into a fracas between armed groups.

“I am afraid of the repetition of violence against civilians," said Aws Ibrahim, 22, geology student at Mosul University. “All the parties have armed wings and now they are disputing over how to divide what the cake.”

Ibrahim is particularly worried that the previous Prime Minister Nouri Al-Malaki will turn to violence having failed completely at the ballot box.

Many blamed government corruption under Mr. Al-Malaki for the collapse of the Iraqi army in the face of the 2014 ISIS capture of Mosul, Tikrit and other territory as well as substandard education, health, and infrastructure conditions in Sunni neighborhoods that comprise 35 percent of the country.

Meanwhile jubilant Sa’iroon supporters celebrated their effective get out the vote effort and the rejection of Iranian domination by much of the Shiite electorate.

“The celebrations of Sadrists in Baghdad was so huge today and their anti-Iran slogans were blatant,” said Ali Bashar, a political scientist at Bayan University in Irbil. “Sa’iroon support to Abadi could fade away as they were Baghdad’s biggest list, but if the USA is able to contain the Sadrists somehow, they are likely to present a prime minister [Abadi] with another term.”

Meanwhile, regardless of which candidate takes the lead now, many are just gratefully it wasn't one of the more militant groupings such as Al-Fateh.

“Nobody remembers the bad qualities of those on the head of this list who played with people’s feelings under the name of “fight and martyrdom,” said Thaer Qasim Jaber, 37, a graphic designer in Baghdad. "They feel sympathized with because they are a Shiite majority…and was linked with fighting ISIS and this made it acceptable in the society.”

A version on this story has been published in The Washington Times.
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