The first Iraqi election since the defeat of ISIS was announced in December 2017, giving citizens the opportunity to vote in parliamentary elections. The results of the vote on May 12th determined the new Prime Minister of Iraq and the shape of the government in Baghdad, one tasked with the difficult challenge of rebuilding the country after the devastating civil war.
The 2018 election was marred by an increased sectarianism from previous years, with the usually united Shia voting bloc split into four separate coalitions. The populist ‘firebrand’ Shia cleric Muqtada al – Sadr’s Sairoon coalition won the most seats in a surprise result, reflecting a general resentment toward the political establishment. The coalition is made up of an alliance between the mainly Shi’a Islamist working class and the secular Communist Party.
Coming in second was Hadi al – Ameri’s Fatah bloc, an alliance between the Shia Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) and the Badr Organisation. The PMF is an umbrella group of a number of paramilitaries which have risen to prominence in recent years due to their key role in repelling ISIS advances. The deputy commander of the PMF is Jamal Jaafar Ibrahimi, a US designated terrorist considered to be the right-hand man of Qasem Soleimani, who is the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps – Quds Force.The Badr Organisation like the PMF, is considered Iran’s most reliable proxy force in Iraq, similar to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Incumbent Prime Minister Haider al – Abadi, leading the Victory Alliance and the preferred candidate of the US and international community, came in third. Nouri al Maliki (Prime Minister from 2006 – 2014) leads the State of Law Coalition and came in fourth.
The shunning of the political elite and the success of Sairoon and Fatah, seen as outsiders of the political system, sends a clear message to the old establishment. Iraqis are fed up with the economic, political and social problems that plague the country. Since 2005, Iraq has taken in $700 billion of oil revenue, whilst it is ranked 120th on the UNDP’s Human Development Report. Transparency International ranks Iraq 169th out of 180 on the Corruption Perception Index. Basic services are lacking, with 90,000 people in Basra being hospitalized this summer after drinking contaminated water. Youth unemployment in Iraq sits at 18%.
In order to form a government these competing coalitions had to form a majority of 165 out of 329 seats to elect a President. Muqtada al-Sadr is the man of the minute, an effective kingmaker who controls the largest bloc, but who is he?
Born in Najaf, Muqtada al – Sadr comes from an influential Lebanese family of Shia scholars. His father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Sadeq al – Sadr was a highly respected cleric throughout the Shia Muslim world, but was executed by Saddam Hussein in 1999. During the US occupation of Iraq, Muqtada al – Sadr was a ruthless warlord and commander of the Mahdi Army, one of the largest Shia militias formed after state collapse in 2003. Sadr engaged in fierce battles against US presence in the country; President Bush declared him an enemy of the US and issued a warrant for his killing or capture. During the brutal sectarian civil war of 2006 – 2008 Sadr was responsible for thousands of attacks on US and government forces. He was subsequently forced into exile in Iran.
Upon returning in 2011 Sadr underwent a significant re-branding campaign, shifting from hardened militant to champion of the poor and dispossessed Shia Muslims. Similar to other Islamist groups in the Middle East, he changed the focus of the Mahdi to providing social services, healthcare, food and clean water, building a loyal support base. He reinvented himself as a populist, nationalist, anti-corruption, anti-foreign interference crusader. He has worked to overcome sectarian divisions, reaching out to secular Communist Party members and centrist Sunni candidates. In 2017 he surprisingly travelled to Saudi Arabia to meet with Crown Prince Muhamad bin Salman, highlighting Sadr’s intensions to balance Iranian influence in the country. His list is filled with technocrats, abandoning the same old faces who have disappointed the populace in the past.
Sadr has recognised the political realignment in Iraq, and positioned himself right in the centre to take advantage of the new situation. A new form of Iraqi nationalism is on the rise, different from the sectarian nationalism under Saddam. The people are demanding an Iraqi solution to their problems, free from Iranian and US influence and Sadr’s years of work identifying himself as an Iraqi nationalist mixed with Shia religiosity heeds to their call.
After 15 years in Iraq, US fatigue is precipitating a withdrawal from such a central role in Iraqi politics. Even though Sadr is an anti-American, he fits with the Trump Doctrine of Iranian containment and the US has seemed to acquiesce to his presence.
Iraq remains a front-line state in the regional battle for hegemony between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with Muhamad bin Salman looking to take advantage of this populist uprising. However, Iran will not give up its hold over Iraq easily, which it has been carefully cultivating ever since the US toppled Iran’s regional rival Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Sadr will not be able to side-line the Iranian proxies totally, the Fatah Alliance who are second strongest. Especially considering the PMF is still strongly armed. Iran will work tirelessly to make sure Iraq doesn’t turn into another enemy on its border and repeat the conflict of the 1980s.
This highly charged and delicate post ISIS political environment could easily descend into another sectarian proxy battle in the region. ISIS is down, but not out. Reports suggest that ISIS is regrouping in the western province of Anbar under the name Ansar Sharia.
This summer saw intense protests across the south of the country culminating with the torching of the Iranian embassy on the 7th September. These protests have been harshly suppressed for now, but the tension remains palpable. Some commentators claim the Iraqi protests could spell doom for the whole region yet again.
This complex constellation of international, regional and domestic developments has opened a space for a different vision and a different politics, perhaps a new Iraqi national identity. Sadr seems to have realised and seized the opportunity. The question is whether he will be able to respond to the conflicting challenges the region and Iraq itself are facing.