Iraq may be left with a ruling coalition that can moderate the Sadrists’ worst impulses while also addressing many of the structural problems that plague Iraqi democracy.
Iraq’s recent parliamentary elections left many Western observers disappointed after the current Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s Victory Alliance failed to match the significant gains by its rival al-Sairoon. The electoral list of al-Sairoon was built around the political vision of controversial Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Sadr has long been viewed as a nuisance to the United States due to his control of a Shia paramilitary group known as the Mahdi Army that frequently clashed with U.S. forces during their initial occupation of Iraq. In addition, Sadr’s May 30 reference to the United States as an “invader country,” which cannot be allowed to interfere in internal Iraqi politics led many journalists to question whether a Sadrist Iraqi government might prove openly hostile to the United States.
While there are many reasons to be concerned with Sadr’s rise to political prominence, his strong anti-Iran stance and fervent desire to root out political corruption in Iraq could ultimately produce many positive outcomes for the fledgling democracy. If the Sadrists’ can form a new government that effectively crosses sectarian and political lines, Iraq may be left with a ruling coalition that can moderate the Sadrists’ worst impulses while also addressing many of the structural problems that plague Iraqi democracy.
Western journalists have often characterized Sadr as a partisan Shia firebrand, but his success in the recent election was largely driven by his calls to abandon sectarian divisions. The son of a prominent religious and political activist, Sadr campaigned on the themes of ending political corruption, providing greater relief to Iraq’s most impoverished communities, and embracing a new Iraqi nationalism that transcends sectarian lines. To achieve these goals, Sadr promised a government of competent technocrats chosen for their ability to deliver essential services to all people. This is a significant shift as traditionally services have been based on party loyalty or religious affiliation— two factors which have also historically played an outsized role in the selection process of government officials. Additionally, while Sadr did not include his name on al-Sairoon’s list and is not a candidate to be named Prime Minister, he plans on having significant input in the selection of Iraq’s new executive. For instance, former Iraqi ambassador the United States Lukman Faily contends that Sadr has, “always wanted to be the king maker — not the king.”
There is no doubt that Sadr’s promised reforms would undoubtedly be a welcome solution to problems that have long ailed the Iraqi government. Despite Abadi’s admirable efforts to root out corruption within Iraq’s political system, Transparency International concluded that Iraq, “suffers from extensive, pervasive corruption across all levels of government and sectors,” and, “continually scores among the worst countries in the world in various governance and corruption indicators.” Furthermore, with millions of Iraqis struggling to repair their lives in the wake of ISIS’ defeat and over 20% of Iraqis now living below the country’s poverty line, significant action is needed to address the systemic poverty that has long hampered the advancement of the Iraqi underclass.
While Sadr’s opposition to the U.S. military’s presence in Iraq has left the American national security establishment understandably concerned, an Iraqi government that accelerates America’s departure from Iraq may turn out to be a blessing in disguise. ISIS has been virtually eradicated in Iraq, yet roughly 5,200 American military personnel remain in the country, primarily providing training and logistical support to Iraqi security forces. Ironically, the perception of the United States as an occupying military power has historically been one of the leading drivers of extremist recruitment, and this perception is likely to be further entrenched the longer the United States remains in Iraq despite there being no credible military threat.
The Sadrists’ electoral gains are a clear indicator of the Iraqi peoples’ growing discontent towards American presence in their country. A hastened departure of American troops may do more to preserve the long-term diplomatic relationship between Iraq and the United States than a protracted military presence that would further sour the Iraqi public’s perception of the U.S. After spending over $2.4 trillion and losing over 4,000 American lives in Iraq over the past fifteen years, the United States should be happy to extract itself from Iraq once and for all.