• The San Juan Daily Star

In Iraq election, Shiite cleric who fought US strengthens power

Supporters of the Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr celebrated in the streets of the southern city of Najaf on Sunday after polls closed.

By Jane Arraf

Followers of a Shiite cleric whose fighters battled U.S. forces during the occupation made the biggest gains in Iraq’s parliamentary election, strengthening his hand in determining whether the country drifts further out of the U.S. orbit.

While independent candidates won some seats for the first time in a political landscape altered by anti-government protests, it became increasingly clear as ballots were tallied Monday that the big winner in the Sunday vote was Sairoun, the political movement loyal to the cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr.

Sairoun won up to 20 additional seats in Parliament, consolidating its status as the single biggest bloc in the chamber and giving the mercurial cleric an even more decisive vote over the country’s next prime minister.

The outcome could further complicate Iraq’s challenge in steering diplomatically between the United States and Iran, adversaries that both see Iraq as vital to their interests. Pro-Iranian militias have played an increased role in Iraq since the rise of the Islamic State in 2014 and have launched attacks on U.S. interests in the country.

Al-Sadr has navigated an uneasy relationship with Iran, where he has pursued his religious studies. Regarding the United States, he and his aides have refused to meet with U.S. officials.

He and the Iranian leadership shared similar goals when his fighters fought U.S. forces after 2003. But al-Sadr is viewed as an Iraqi nationalist, an identity that has sometimes put him in conflict with Iran — a country he cannot afford to antagonize.

In a speech Monday night, al-Sadr said all embassies are welcome in Iraq as long as they do not interfere in Iraqi affairs or the formation of a government. The cleric also implicitly criticized the Iran-backed militias, some of which refer to themselves as “the resistance.”

“Even if those who claim resistance or such, it is time for the people to live in peace, without occupation, terrorism, militias and kidnapping,” he said in an address broadcast on state TV. “Today is the victory day of the people against the occupation, normalization, militias, poverty and slavery,” he said, in an apparent reference to normalizing ties with Israel.

“He is using some sharp language against Iran and the resistance groups affiliated with Iran,” said Gheis Ghoreishi, a political analyst who has advised Iran’s Foreign Ministry on Iraq, speaking about al-Sadr’s victory speech in Clubhouse, an online discussion group. “There is a real lack of trust and grievances between Sadr and Iran.”

In Baghdad on Monday night, young men jammed into pickup trucks, waving flags, playing celebratory songs and carrying photos of al-Sadr as they cruised the streets of the capital.

Election authorities announced preliminary results Monday evening with official results expected later this week. With 94% of the vote counted, election officials said the turnout was 41% — a record low that reflected a deep disdain by Iraqis toward politicians and government leaders who have made Iraq one of the most corrupt countries in the world.

Activists who were part of anti-government protests that brought down the Iraqi government in 2019 won up to a dozen seats, running for the first time in this election, which was called a year early to answer demands for changes in Iraq’s political system.

That system, in which senior government posts are divided by political leaders along sectarian and ethnic lines, remains unchanged. But a new electoral law loosened the stranglehold of large political blocs and made it easier for independent candidates and smaller parties to win seats.

The preliminary results also showed that the political bloc headed by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki appeared to be the second-biggest winner while parties tied to pro-Iranian militias lost ground.

Al-Maliki, a Shiite, gained wide support for having sent Iraqi government troops to break the militias’ hold on Iraq’s southern city of Basra in 2008. But he was later blamed for a descent into sectarianism that helped foster the rise of the Islamic State.

But it was the Sadrists who were the clear winners Sunday.

“Even if he ordered us to throw ourselves from the roofs of our houses, I would throw myself,” said Abbas Radhi, an election worker overseeing one of the Sadr City polling stations, referring to Muqtada al-Sadr.

The cleric declared twice in the runup to the vote that he was withdrawing his movement from the election process before reversing and declaring that the next prime minister should come from the Sadrist ranks. But al-Sadr appears open to negotiation about who should lead Iraq.

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, an independent who has tried to balance Iraq’s relations between the United States and Iran, and has made clear he wants to be prime minister again, will need Sadrist support.

While Shiite parties dominate Iraqi politics, the biggest Kurdish faction, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, along with a Sunni faction headed by the Parliament speaker, Mohamed al-Halbousi, also emerged with enough seats to play a role in deciding the next prime minister.

The low turnout was a reflection of the disdain for Iraqi politicians, particularly among young voters who are faced with a future that offers few opportunities. Sixty percent of Iraq’s population is under the age of 25.

“Clearly, people are still disillusioned even more with the political parties and the political process,” said Farhad Alaaldin, head of the Iraq Advisory Council, a research group in Baghdad. “People don’t believe that this election would bring about change, and that’s why they didn’t bother to turn out to vote.”

The disillusionment extends from a deeply corrupt and dysfunctional government to the parliamentarians themselves. President Barham Salih has said an estimated $150 billion obtained through corruption has been smuggled out of Iraq since 2003.

The organization of the election, with new biometric voting cards and electronic transmission systems designed to deter widespread fraud seen in previous elections, was declared by international observers to have met international criteria.

But some organizations that had deployed observers during the voting cautioned that the low turnout meant a limited public mandate for the new government.

“In the aftermath of the elections, the low turnout may cause questions as to the legitimacy of the government,” said Sarah Hepp, director of Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, a German-government funded political foundation.

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