Nassir Shirkhani Beirut 24 May 2018 22:00 GMT
Populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, the winner of Iraq’s elections, has hit the right note in seeking an inclusive government that can work for a stable and prosperous country hit by ethnic and sectarian violence.
Stability and social cohesion are what Iraq needs to use its enormous oil wealth to improve the plight of Iraqis after years of instability since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
Arguably, the oil sector has been the only shining success in Iraq, thanks to the willingness of international oil companies to plough billions of dollars into production expansion.
Revenues from production of 4.5 million barrels per day are potentially enough to transform the economy, but endemic corruption and cronyism have stifled Iraq’s ability to realise its potential.
Sadr ran on an anti-corruption and non-sectarian platform that struck a chord with ordinary Iraqis angry at their leaders’ failure to restore basic services such as power and rebuild a crumbling infrastructure 15 years after Saddam.
Sadr, whose Sairoon alliance beat expectations to come out on top in the 12 May vote, immediately met rival political leaders, ushering in what could be an extended period of discussions over forming the new government.
After talks with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Saturday, he said the meeting was intended to reassure Iraqis of his commitment to a government that speaks to everyone.
“Your government will be a caring and inclusive one. It will cover everyone in order to achieve reform and prosperity,” Sadr said, adding his “door is open to anyone as long as they want to build the nation”.
Although his remarks highlight an emerging political maturity, the once-firebrand cleric’s past could be a barrier to putting his kingmaker role to good use.
Sadr, once on the US army’s hit-list for using his feared Mahdi militia to kill American soldiers, has angered Tehran, which has exercised the most influence in appointing post-Saddam Iraqi prime ministers.
His election platform — orchestrated by an alliance that includes communists, nationalists and secular groups — pledged to fight corruption and end sectarian quotas in handing out government jobs, and called for the disbanding of all militias and reconciliation between the Shia and Sunni sects.
However, Sadr’s increasingly anti-Iranian stance, including his courting of Saudi rulers as a counterweight to Tehran, has not gone down well with the Islamic Republic.
“We will not allow liberals and communists to govern in Iraq,” says Ali Akbar Velayati, the senior adviser on foreign affairs to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Under a judgement by Iraq’s federal court, the prime minister comes from the post-election coalition with the most seats rather than from the pre-election alliance that wins the most seats.
So Sadr’s alliance could yet be shut out as other party leaders make deals.
Since no bloc has an absolute majority, the new government will have to be formed through consensus.
Iran has key allies such as powerful militia leader Hadi al-Amiri, who came second, as well as leading members of the Islamic Dawa party, to which Abadi and former prime Minister Nouri al-Maleki belong.
They can muster enough votes to secure the prime ministerial berth.
Iran has a genuine interest in a stable Iraq, with which it fought a ruinous war from 1980 to 1988.
For that reason, it may be prepared to encourage its allies to accept a role for Sadr and his supporters in the next government.