Iraq’s Al-Sadr will need to soften his anti-Iran rhetoric if he wants any power

By Middle East Affairs

After winning Iraq’s parliamentary election, Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shiite cleric who was once known for his violent tactics says he is committed to forming a government for Iraqis first.

Iraq’s sovereignty will be the guiding principle of how the new government will be run said Salah Al-Obeidi, a spokesman for Al-Sadr’s Sa’eroun political group, to The Associated Press.

Official results of his victory came Saturday, Al-Sadr ran on a platform of anti-American Anti-Iranian rhetoric. His main opponent in the election was an Iranian backed politician.

“We warn any other country that wants to involve itself in Iraqi politics not to cross the Iraqi people,” Al-Obeidi said.

Before Al-Sadr became a populist cleric, he was known for leading an insurgency against invading U.S forces in 2003. Al-Sadr did not run for a seat himself, but his winning coalition has given him the power to fill a number of seats and ultimately decide on the next prime minister.

Even with all that power, his choices will be limited by Iran, who as the leading Shia nation has strong relations with several notable Iraqi politicians. Iran is trying to rally its politician allies to block Al-Sadr agenda, as he is known for his anti-Iranian rhetoric.

Al-Sadr’s win undermines Iran’s position to speak for Iraq’s Shiite majority, this could fuel independent Shiite movements elsewhere. Since Al-Sadr now has the political claim to appoint several top government officials, Iran worries who will be placed in positions of power for the police and military.

In an apparent appearance for the sake of Iran, Al-Sadr appeared next to rival cleric Ammar Al-Hakim, who in recent years has drifted away from Iran’s influence, to announce that both clerics share a vision for a new Iraq.

Iran is not wasting any time and has already pulled together Gen. Qassem Soleimani, a top regional military commander to form a coalition against Al-Sadr, said an Iraqi Shiite militia commander. Speaking anonymously because of the sensitivity of the subject, he said “Iran won’t accept the creation of a Shiite bloc that is a threat to its interests. It’s a red line.”

Al-Sadr has maintained relations with Iranian political and government leaders, but in recent years has been vocal about Iranian munitions to Shiite militias, at the same time he has run his own “Peace Brigade” north of Bagdad in the holy city of Samarra.

In the last decade, Iran-backed Badr Organization and Al-Sadr’s former Mehdi Army militia battled ferociously. The two armies filled the fracture that Iraq’s army left when they deserted their places during the summer of 2014 when ISIS forces swept the area. With the backing of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and the U.S backed Iraqi forces, they were able to win against ISIS and slowly push them out of the area. Last year, Iraq was able to claim victory over ISIS.

Another reason for conflict between the Al-Sadr and Iran is that Al- Sadr supports Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates who are currently fighting proxy wars in Syria and Yemen against Iran. After he took a meeting with the crown princes of Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi, Keyhan, an Iranian newspaper scandalized Al-Sadr with the headline that he is “selling himself” to the house of Saud.

If Al-Sadr wants a say in who is prime minister, he will have to turn to pro-Iranian political groups, who have enough seats on their own to form an alliance in government, if that happens his power will be majorly restricted.

Fatah, an electoral alliance of the militias headed by Hadi Al-Amiri, the commander of the Badr Organization, lost to Al-Sadr’s bloc by just seven votes. Iraq has a 329-seat national assembly, to win a majority one would need 165, Sa’eroun won 54 seats. In the current government militias control the Interior Ministry, it is certain that they will expect the same position of power in the next government.

Current Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi is a centrist who neither favors or opposes Iran or the U.S, it is said that he appears to be hesitating between Al-Sadr and Al-Amiri. There are several pro-Iranian officials including one who has been recently sanctioned by the US for allegedly funding Iran’s Revolutionary Guard in Al-Abadi Al-Nasr bloc, which means that Al-Abadi is not immune to influences from Tehran.

Iran’s allies in Iraq will want Al-Abadi to turn away from Al-Sadr, said a Western diplomat who was privity to information from both sides. He also spoke on the conditions of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.

Since Al-Sadr’s power is only on the condition of his cooperation with Iranian based groups in government, he will need to soften his stances on the militias and Iran. This will weaken his bold reform agenda.

If any side feels threatened they are likely to call upon their followers, who are willing to do as they are told.

Kirk Sowell, the publisher of Inside Iraqi Politics, a political and security newsletter said that Al-Sadr has championed for a civil service law that would end Iraq’s widespread corruption signed into law by the next prime minister. However, there is no indication that the Cabinet or parliament would agree to that.

“There’s not going to be a functioning majority,” Sowell said, “It’ll be a hodge-podge, coalition government, and it’s not going to be any more stable than the last one.”

 

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