North Korea Prepares to Secure Nuclear Deal

North Korea to Destroy Nuclear Test Site before US Summit

Prior to scheduled summit between the US and North Korean leaders in June, Pyongyang vowed on Saturday to destroy its nuclear test site later this month.

The display at Punggye-ri, in the northwest of the country will be open to foreign media.

The event marks another step in leader Kim Jong Un’s charm offensive. A ceremony scheduled between May 23-25, weather permitting, said the foreign ministry.

The journalists will be provided with a charter flight from Beijing to the North Korean coastal city of Wonsan, from where they will travel by train to the test site.

The ministry said the North will continue to “promote close contacts and dialogue with the neighboring countries and the international society so as to safeguard peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and over the globe.”

Dialogue brokered by Seoul has seen US-North Korea relations go from trading personal insults and threats of war last year to a summit between Kim and President Donald Trump due in Singapore on June 12.

But skeptics warn that Pyongyang has yet to make any public commitment to give up its arsenal, which includes missiles capable of reaching the United States.

Washington is seeking the “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization” of the North and stresses that verification will be key.

Punggye-ri has hosted all six of the North’s nuclear tests, the latest and by far the most powerful in September last year, which Pyongyang said was an H-bomb.

Kim has declared the development of the North’s nuclear force complete and that it had no further need for the site.

The latest measures will see the tunnels of the test site blown up and their entrances completely blocked, Pyongyang’s foreign ministry said, according to the official KCNA news agency.

All observation facilities and research institutes would be removed, along with guards, it said, “and the surrounding area of the test ground be completely closed”.

Reporters from China, Russia, the United States, Britain and South Korea would be allowed to cover the event on site to show it “in a transparent manner”.

Limits on foreign journalists were due to space constraints, it said, as the site was in an “uninhabited deep mountain area”.

Analysts said the move was positive but limited in its scope.

It was “not bad, but a cost-free signal”, tweeted MIT political science professor Vipin Narang.

Given the stage it had already reached, Pyongyang “may feel like they don’t need to test anything for a while”, he said.

Jeffrey Lewis, of the Middlebury Institute for International Studies, expected that the North “will sanitize the site before letting anyone see it”.

North Korea has invited the outside world to witness the dismantling of its nuclear facilities before.

In June 2008, international broadcasters were allowed to air the demolishing of a cooling tower at the Nyongbyon reactor site, a year after the North reached an agreement with the US and four other nations to disable its nuclear facilities in return for an aid package worth about $400 million.

But in September 2008, the North declared that it would resume reprocessing plutonium, complaining that Washington wasn’t fulfilling its promise to remove the country from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism.

The administration of George W. Bush removed North Korea from the list in October 2008 after the country agreed to continue disabling its nuclear plant. However, a final attempt by Bush to complete an agreement to fully dismantle North Korea’s nuclear weapons program collapsed that December when the North refused to accept US-proposed verification methods.

The North went on to conduct its second nuclear test in May 2009.

Two Centuries Before The Sixth Seal (Revelation 6:12)

Image result for 1755 massachusetts earthquakeThe worst earthquake in Massachusetts history 260 years ago

It happened before, and it could happen again.

By Hilary Sargent @lilsarg Staff | 11.19.15 | 5:53 AM

On November 18, 1755, Massachusetts experienced its largest recorded earthquake.

The earthquake occurred in the waters off Cape Ann, and was felt within seconds in Boston, and as far away as Nova Scotia, the Chesapeake Bay, and upstate New York, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Seismologists have since estimated the quake to have been between 6.0 and 6.3 on the Richter scale, according to the Massachusetts Historical Society.

While there were no fatalities, the damage was extensive.

According to the USGS, approximately 100 chimneys and roofs collapsed, and over a thousand were damaged.

The worst damage occurred north of Boston, but the city was not unscathed.

A 1755 report in The Philadelphia Gazette described the quake’s impact on Boston:

“There was at first a rumbling noise like low thunder, which was immediately followed with such a violent shaking of the earth and buildings, as threw every into the greatest amazement, expecting every moment to be buried in the ruins of their houses. In a word, the instances of damage done to our houses and chimnies are so many, that it would be endless to recount them.”

The quake sent the grasshopper weathervane atop Faneuil Hall tumbling to the ground, according to the Massachusetts Historical Society.

An account of the earthquake, published in The Pennsylvania Gazette on December 4, 1755.

The earthquake struck at 4:30 in the morning, and the shaking lasted “near four minutes,” according to an entry John Adams, then 20, wrote in his diary that day.

The brief diary entry described the damage he witnessed.

“I was then at my Fathers in Braintree, and awoke out of my sleep in the midst of it,” he wrote. “The house seemed to rock and reel and crack as if it would fall in ruins about us. 7 Chimnies were shatter’d by it within one mile of my Fathers house.”

The shaking was so intense that the crew of one ship off the Boston coast became convinced the vessel had run aground, and did not learn about the earthquake until they reached land, according to the Massachusetts Historical Society.

In 1832, a writer for the Hampshire (Northampton) Gazette wrote about one woman’s memories from the quake upon her death.

“It was between 4 and 5 in the morning, and the moon shone brightly. She and the rest of the family were suddenly awaked from sleep by a noise like that of the trampling of many horses; the house trembled and the pewter rattled on the shelves. They all sprang out of bed, and the affrightted children clung to their parents. “I cannot help you dear children,” said the good mother, “we must look to God for help.

The Cape Ann earthquake came just 17 days after an earthquake estimated to have been 8.5-9.0 on the Richter scale struck in Lisbon, Portugal, killing at least 60,000 and causing untold damage.

There was no shortage of people sure they knew the impretus for the Cape Ann earthquake.

According to many ministers in and around Boston, “God’s wrath had brought this earthquake upon Boston,” according to the Massachusetts Historical Society.

In “Verses Occasioned by the Earthquakes in the Month of November, 1755,” Jeremiah Newland, a Taunton resident who was active in religious activities in the Colony, wrote that the earthquake was a reminder of the importance of obedience to God.

“It is becaufe we broke thy Laws,

that thou didst shake the Earth.

O what a Day the Scriptures say,

the EARTHQUAKE doth foretell;

O turn to God; lest by his Rod,

he cast thee down to Hell.”

Boston Pastor Jonathan Mayhew warned in a sermon that the 1755 earthquakes in Massachusetts and Portugal were “judgments of heaven, at least as intimations of God’s righteous displeasure, and warnings from him.”

There were some, though, who attempted to put forth a scientific explanation for the earthquake.

Well, sort of.

In a lecture delivered just a week after the earthquake, Harvard mathematics professor John Winthrop said the quake was the result of a reaction between “vapors” and “the heat within the bowels of the earth.” But even Winthrop made sure to state that his scientific theory “does not in the least detract from the majesty … of God.”

It has been 260 years since the Cape Ann earthquake. Some experts, including Boston College seismologist John Ebel, think New England could be due for another significant quake.

In a recent Boston Globe report, Ebel said the New England region “can expect a 4 to 5 magnitude quake every decade, a 5 to 6 every century, and a magnitude 6 or above every thousand years.”

If the Cape Ann earthquake occurred today, “the City of Boston could sustain billions of dollars of earthquake damage, with many thousands injured or killed,” according to a 1997 study by the US Army Corps of Engineers.

The Antichrist’s Radical Vision for Iraq

A Shia Cleric’s Radical Vision for Iraq

Moqtada al-Sadr has transformed himself—and could emerge a kingmaker after elections this weekend.

Krishnadev Calamur is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees news coverage. He is a former editor and reporter at NPR and the author of Murder in Mumbai. Twitter

Soon after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, a CBS News crew interviewed a young Shia cleric who explained what was happening in his country this way: “The little serpent has left,” Moqtada al-Sadr said, referring to the ousted dictator, “and the great serpent [the United States] has come.”

In the early days of the post-Saddam era, U.S. military officials variously described Sadr as an “annoyance” and a “thug.” But he quickly transformed himself into an influential—and controversial—figure. His fighters committed brutal atrocities in the post-invasion violence, fought the U.S. military in Sadr City and Basra, and were known for their corruption. A 2006 Newsweek cover story even labeled Sadr “the most dangerous man in Iraq.” Fifteen years after the fall of Saddam, Sadr, now 44 years old, is warily viewed as a potential kingmaker in Iraq’s parliamentary elections on Saturday. In a country riven by sectarian tensions and regional politics, Sadr has transformed himself again: He has now positioned himself as an Iraqi nationalist; allied himself with communists, Sunnis, and political independents; criticized Iran’s outsized influence in Iraq; and strongly criticized the sectarian nature of Iraq’s politics.

“I’m very struck by how Sadr has changed a lot of his rhetoric and sort of the thrust of his policies to become less of an Islamist and more of a nationalist,” said Robert Ford, who was deputy U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2008 to 2010, and served as the political counselor to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad from 2004 to 2006. And, Ford added, given the expected splintering of the vote in Saturday’s election, Sadr is likely to emerge as a key player in the jockeying for allies in the post-election period.

“Does it make him the sole kingmaker, the only kingmaker? No,” said Ford, who is now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute. “Does it make him a potential valuable coalition partner that can deliver seats in the parliament to get to the two-thirds needed? … That I can easily imagine.”

Sadr is in many ways an embodiment of the tensions that have shaped Iraq since 2003, and a symbol what could change: if nationalism overtakes sectarianism as a political force; if Iraqi independence asserts itself over Iranian and U.S. influence; and if good governance can replace the kind of cronyism for which the country has become known. The formerly Shia sectarian ally of Iran who was known for corruption is forcefully embracing the opposite values in parliamentary elections at a time when the country may be uniquely ripe for them: Iraq has just emerged from a brutal battle against ISIS; the Shia parties are split into five major factions; there is no clear Sunni representative. And Iraq arrives at this juncture with many of the same problems that plagued it before ISIS seized large parts of the country in 2014.

“There’s frustration with corruption. There’s frustration with low quality of infrastructure services, like water and electricity. So people want change,” Ford said. “In the past, at least in the Shia side, the religious establishment in Najaf would back the Shia religious party, but this year they’ve come out with a statement in Arabic … ‘don’t vote for the people who have experience’—as in, they’re corrupt.”

It’s against this backdrop that Sadr, a man who has successfully cultivated an image as an outsider despite his status as a consummate political insider, could hold the key. He controls a relatively small, but intensely loyal slice of the Shia electorate—and he has been working with Sunni politicians for more than a year. Although he may lose some of his Shia support to more radical and populist Shia parties that have emerged in the post-ISIS era, the fractured nature of Iraq’s electoral system means much of the political maneuvering will occur after this Saturday’s parliamentary elections. That’s where Sadr’s presence will be felt.

“It’s not difficult to imagine that people who have a certain amount of experience negotiating with other political parties are going to do better in a post-election climate,” Ford said, “and Sadr has been working on that for at least the last year.”

To understand how a man with a solid, but marginal support base can remain politically vital, it is helpful to examine the political situation in Iraq. The electoral landscape is perhaps more divided than it has ever been. There’s little to show for Shia solidarity, including in the ruling Dawa Party, where Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, are running on different political lists. There is no clear Sunni leader. The Kurds, who until recently were both influential and powerful, have been chastened after they were crushed by the Iraqi military following the referendum on independence last year. The only certainty in the elections is that no one faction will emerge dominant in the 328-seat parliament.

In this scenario, Sadr can wield a lot of influence, Ben Van Heuvelen, the editor-in-chief of Iraq Oil Report, a publication that reports on Iraq’s energy industry, told me. “Where I think that Sadr has a comparative advantage is that the Sadrists historically have been very well organized,” he said. “His supporters come from grassroots efforts, not particularly dependent on whichever way the winds are blowing politically. In terms of the number of seats he commands [in parliament], and in the loyalty he can expect from the MPs and his bloc, that’s fairly solid in an otherwise fluid political situation.”

Sadr’s solid political support partly comes from who he is: His uncle Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr (whose daughter Sadr married) was the preeminent Shia scholar of his time, and his father, Mohammad Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, was revered throughout the Shia world. The men, both grand ayatollahs, were killed by Saddam’s regime. The younger Sadr holds nowhere near that level of religious influence in Iraq. But what he lacks in moral authority, he makes up for in political influence—and loyalty. He has distinguished himself in other ways, as well: He has not only positioned himself as an anti-corruption crusader, but also as an Iraqi nationalist opposed to both Iranian and American influence. More importantly, perhaps, Ford says he doesn’t believe Sadr is interested in either a political role or a ministerial position. “His goal instead is to be influential in politics and to be a player. … Sadr sees his role as being a guide rather than an operator.”

Take Sadr’s anti-corruption drive. Two years ago, Sadr’s supporters stormed Baghdad’s supposedly secure Green Zone and took over Parliament. They demanded improved governance and an end to corruption—and they left after a day, on Sadr’s orders. During that time, Sadr first demanded a government of technocrats, who, many Iraqis believe, are untarnished by corruption and capable of bringing much-needed competence to governance. That remains Sadr’s demand in these elections, too—though, as Ford pointed out, “technocrats with no political support may not get very far.”

Ford also noted that Sadr’s anti-corruption rhetoric is ironic because his party had for a time controlled the health and transportation ministries. “They were known to be pretty corrupt in the health ministry, not to mention sectarian,” he said. “A lot of times Sunnis were hauled out and murdered from the hospital.”

That remains another of Sadr’s legacies. When Iraq fell into chaos in the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion, his Mahdi Army fought not only American troops, but also Sunnis. The group was held responsible for some of the worst atrocities perpetrated against the Sunni population of Iraq, which despite being a minority had enjoyed dominance in Saddam’s Iraq at the expense of the Shia majority. But Sadr disbanded his powerful Mahdi Army in 2008. He later formed what he called the Peace Companies to fight ISIS, disbanded that group last December after the defeat of the terrorist group, and agreed to hand over its weapons to the government.

Sadr’s unlikely political transformation may have more to do with pragmatism than with any newfound sectarian goodwill in Iraq. Because Iraq’s political alliances are built on a system of lists, the more inclusive your list, the more seats you’re likely to get in parliament. In Mosul, a Sunni stronghold that until recently was governed by ISIS, Abadi, who is Shia, has encouraged many Sunnis to run on his “Victory Alliance” list. Some Iraqi politicians seem to be recognizing that inclusion may help build the biggest possible coalition after the election.

“It’s a sign that sectarian identity isn’t as big a factor in this election as it seemed to be in previous elections,” Van Heuvelen said. “The implication is that it’s not bad politics to be associated with members of different ethnicities and sects, and that’s a hopeful thing.”

This is not to say, he adds, that identity politics are no longer important. Indeed, one of the major Shia groups in the upcoming elections is the pro-Iran Fatah Alliance, which includes the Popular Mobilization Forces that fought ISIS—and that were responsible for some of the more high-profile atrocities against Sunnis in areas they captured. Groups like Fatah might not be anti-Sunni, per se, but they do play on Shia identity politics.

Vali Nasr, a Middle East scholar and dean of the School of Advanced and International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, explained Iraq’s politics this way: No Shia leader positions himself as a sectarian. On the contrary, they position themselves as the rulers of all of Iraq. “But in the end all of the votes are going to come from Shia, not from the Sunnis,” he said. All the Shia factions, including Sadr’s, he said, “are vying for the chunk of the Shia vote—so this overture to Sunnis is of marginal value to them.”

“It’s a campaign slogan of telling Shias that I am better than the other Shia parties in actually governing Iraq, because I can actually claim support from the Sunnis,” he said. “It’s really a message to Shia, not a message to Sunnis.”

Sadr, Nasr says, has most differentiated himself from the other Shia parties in one way: He “has been trying to say, well I’m the Shia party which is most distant from Iran.” This is a significant position to hold in a country where Iran’s influence is sweeping. Tehran cultivates not only Shia politicians and factions, like Fatah, but also Sunni leaders. Sadr’s is a position that could prove appealing to Sunnis and those Iraqis who are tired of outside interference in their country’s affairs.

But that may be wishful thinking. President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal with Iran, and the latest skirmishes between Israel and Iran in Syria, which also borders Iraq, all but ensure that Iraq will remain a significant area of activity and influence for Iran and the other major power in Iraq, the United States. Iran has publicly shied away from criticizing or opposing Sadr—despite his rhetoric against its influence in Iraq. This may be motivated by Tehran’s own goal of seeing the U.S. leave Iraq—a goal it shares with Sadr.

“The Iranians are entirely more supple, patient, and they think long term,” Ford said. “They are able to work for longer-term goals, and not just short-term.”

In any case, the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran deal ensures that Tehran will play some sort of role—perhaps even spoiler—in the period after Saturday’s election.

“The real game starts after the election,” Nasr said. “In a post-Iran-nuclear-deal scenario, it’s going to be difficult to see [how] Iraq will form a government. We sort of have to think that every time Iraq has had a stable government, it has been built by the collaboration and cooperation of Iran and the U.S., including Abadi’s replacement by Maliki.”

Still, this is perhaps the most optimistic period in Iraq in some time—certainly compared to the dark days of 2014-15 when ISIS seized large parts of the country with seemingly little effort. The country has survived an existential threat. Higher oil prices have allowed it to begin emerging from a financial crisis. The political rhetoric is less sectarian and less divisive than in the past.

“There are reasons to hope, but there’s always a but,” Van Huevelen said. “And the note of caution is that all of the systemic problems that were present before ISIS are still present.”

This is where Sadr’s apparent transformation could signal profound implications for Iraqi politics going forward.

“The success of Sadr’s approach and platform is more important than that of his candidates. If his coalition is repudiated by voters, or abandons its plans to challenge poor governance, then we can expect more of the dispiriting business-as-usual from Baghdad,” Thanassis Cambanis, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, wrote recently. “But if Sadr follows through after the election and promotes the formation of a platform-based government with a legislative opposition, then we can expect Iraqi politics to enter a new phase, moving away from narrow sectarianism and patronage-only politics.”

Iran preps ‘industrial-scale’ nuke production

Iran preps ‘industrial-scale’ nuke production after U.S. leaves nuclear deal

OREN DORELL | USA TODAY | 1:53 pm EDT May 11, 2018

President Trump’s decision to scrap the Iran nuclear deal, established under President Obama, has major implications across the globe and for the White House.


Iran will prepare for the “industrial scale” production of nuclear fuel even as it seeks guarantees from other countries to honor the Iran deal despite the recent United States’ withdrawal from the agreement.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif described his government’s reaction to President Trump’s decision on Tuesday to re-impose U.S. sanctions on foreign companies that do business with Iran, in a statement posted to Twitter on Friday.

Iranians burn U.S. flags during an anti-American protest after weekly Friday prayer ceremony in Tehran, Iran, May 11, 2018. Iranians gathered to protest against the U.S. and President Trump after his withdrawal from a 2015 nuclear deal. Trump on May 8, announced the U.S. withdrawal from the deal on May 8.


“The President of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran has been tasked with taking all necessary steps in preparation for Iran to pursue industrial-scale enrichment without any restrictions, using the results of the latest research and development of Iran’s brave nuclear scientists,” the statement said.

Germany and France said they would seek to shield European companies from U.S. sanctions, which would prohibit companies that do business in Iran from using the U.S. financial system.

And Russian President Vladimir Putin has spoken to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan about how to save the 2015 agreement with Iran, according to Russia’s official press agency TASS. Putin has long advocated for a new financial system with China that would circumvent the reach of U.S. sanctions, which also target his country.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, far left, laughs during during a press conference after reaching an agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear activities in return for relief from international and U.S. sanctions, in Vienna, Austria, 14 July 2015. With him, in order from left to right, are Iran’s Ambassador to the IAEA Ali Akbar Salehi (second from left) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. US president Donald Trump on May 8, 2015, announced that US will withdraw from the nuclear deal.


The nuclear deal was negotiated by then-president Barack Obama with Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia to limit Iran’s nuclear activities in return for relief from crippling international sanctions coordinated by the Obama administration. The deal focused on limiting and monitoring Iran’s production of nuclear fuel, a key ingredient for producing such weapons.

Under the deal, Iran permanently altered a heavy water nuclear power plant to prevent it from ever producing plutonium for a bomb. It also disconnected and scaled back its facilities for producing nuclear fuel through a process called uranium enrichment. The deal allowed Iran to reconnect the machines and eventually build an industrial-scale enrichment program starting in 2025.

Trump said he wants to impose new conditions on Iran, to address its ballistic missile program, its support for terrorism, the expiration dates and inspection provisions in the agreement.

Zarif’s statement said that with the U.S. withdrawal from the deal, Iran is prepared to embark on the 2025 enrichment project now.

Zarif’s statement puts pressure on U.S. European allies and other parties to the deal to find a way to keep it alive despite Trump’s efforts to ice it, said Suzanne Maloney, an Iran analyst at the Brookings Institution.

“Zarif is saying we have our hardliners and … who knows what they’re going to do,” Maloney said. “They moved very quickly when it was time to implement the deal and they can move very quickly if they decide to undo it.”

Angela Merkel stands between President Trump and Emmanuel Macron during an international summit last year in Germany.


Germany is ready to help 120 of its firms to keep doing business with Iran, German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier said on Friday.

“We are ready to talk to all the companies concerned about what we can do to minimize the negative consequences,” he told Deutschlandfunk radio, according to Reuters. “That means, it is concretely about damage limitation” and offering legal advice, he saiBut it’s not clear if those European efforts would succeed.

Maloney said the Europeans can try to shield some companies but cannot preserve all the trade and investment that transpired under the sanctions waivers that Trump eliminated this week.

Each company and bank will have to decide whether to risk being cut off from the U.S. financial system.

“In the end, the size of the U.S. market dwarfs any prospect of any benefit they can get from Iran,” Maloney said.

The Antichrist distances himself from former patron Iran (Daniel 8:6)

The firebrand cleric who led a militia blamed for American deaths and ethnic cleansing has distanced himself from former patron Iran.

Anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose fighters clashed with U.S. troops after Saddam Hussein was driven from power, has recast himself as a bulwark against Iranian influence as Iraqi voters head to the ballot box.

Al-Sadr’s Shiite militia known as the the Mahdi Army was blamed for the mass killings of Sunni civilians in sectarian violence that wracked Iraq in 2006 and 2007, and for cleansing Sunnis from parts of Baghdad.

His fighters were also blamed for killing American soldiers in Sadr City, a vast slum in Baghdad, following the 2003 invasion. The Pentagon once said the Mahdi Army had “replaced al Qaeda in Iraq as the most dangerous accelerant of potentially self-sustaining sectarian violence.”

While al-Sadr is not standing as a candidate in Saturday’s national elections and is not officially a political leader, he has thrown his weight behind the Revolutionaries for Reform Alliance. That six-party coalition includes his supporters as well as Iraq’s Communist Party. Running on an anti-corruption platform, the alliance includes Sunnis and Shiites, Islamist and secular Iraqis.

Al-Sadr has distanced himself from former patron Iran, and has cultivated the image of himself as an Arab nationalist. He is working to improve ties with Iraq’s U.S.-allied Gulf neighbors like Sunni power Saudi Arabia, a regional rival to Tehran.

But the cleric remains controversial and feared, with some in Iraq and abroad recalling his links to violent sectarianism. And al-Sadr remains a fiery critic of the U.S.

Regardless of where his political views stand today, al-Sadr has benefited from Iranian support in the past, and even lived in the country for a few years.

And while he has “positioned himself as a counterweight against Iranian influence,” he is also the author of many of Iraq’s problems, according to Ranj Alaaldin of Washington-based Brookings Institution.

The Mahdi Army fueled the country’s devastating sectarian war in the mid-2000s and engaged in widespread corruption, according to Alaaldin.

Al-Sadr’s Peace Brigades — as the Mahdi Army is now known— also recently joined the war against the Islamic State.

A soldier stands guard at a police station destroyed in fighting in Amarah, Iraq, in October 2006. Two days of clashes between Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army and Iraqi security forces had left at least 25 dead.Nabil Al-Jurani / AP

This weekend’s vote is the first since Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory over ISIS, thanks in part to Iran-backed militias. Such paramilitary groups have been instrumental in ousting ISIS from much of Iraq, and in the process, have deepened Tehran’s hold on its neighbor.

Many of the Iran-backed militias have been accused of horrific abuses against civilians, particularly Sunnis, and are opposed to America’s presence in the country.

Their growing clout has raised the specter that they will grow to dominate the Iraqi political scene much like Hezbollah does in Lebanon.

“Al-Sadr is the only one who can stand against the Shiite militias’ influence in Iraq because he is not implementing the Iranian plan,” said Naser Mohammed, a Sunni Muslim from Baghdad who plans to vote for a party in al-Sadr’s bloc.

“In the last few years, [al-Sadr] has started to get closer to all Iraqis, including Sunnis,” added the 46-year-old who works in the finance section of Iraq’s Health Ministry.

Iraqis head to the polls against a backdrop of widespread power outages, poor public services and disastrously low oil prices.

With around 7,000 candidates, no single alliance looks set to win a majority of the 329 parliament seats up for grabs as al-Abadi, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and candidates with close links to Iran-backed militias battle for electoral supremacy.

With popular discontent running high, Revolutionaries for Reform is expected to win enough votes to make al-Sadr a key player during negotiations over the formation of a coalition government.

The cleric’s shift away from Tehran is vital, Sarmad al-Bayati, an independent political analyst in Iraq.

He is “an Iraqi, his father and grandfather were famous religious men who lived in Iraq among Iraqis, so that he feels that he belongs to Iraq not to Iran,” al-Bayati said.

Al-Sadr remains fiercely opposed to the U.S. in Iraq — something that many Iraqis agree with 15 years after the invasion plunged the country into chaos. The U.S. maintains some 5,200 troops in the country.

Al-Sadr “was clear in his messages to the Americans: We are against the existence of U.S. forces in Iraq because they have described themselves as occupiers,” according to Hassan Karim, who is running for parliament with the al-Sadr-backed National Istiqama Party. “We will always be against any country that is occupying our country.”