BAGHDAD–The Sadrist movement and its leader, Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, are hoping to snatch the lion’s share of votes in Iraq’s October elections, in a way that will enable the movement and its political allies to form the next government.
Sadr’s hope of victory comes as his movement is opening new channels of dialogue with the West through British and American diplomats.
Sadr, observers say, is working to promote his movement as a moderate and effective alternative on the Iraqi Shia political scene. In this regard, he wants to reassure the West, particularly the United States and Britain, that the Sadrists will prevent the transformation of Iraq into an ideal bridge for Iran to reach Syria, Lebanon and the Mediterranean.
Washington, the observers explain, does not mind dealing with Sadr, provided that he commits to countering the control of Iran-backed militias, notably the Popular Mobilisation Forces, over state institutions in Iraq.
Sadr has for weeks been mobilising his supporters across various Iraqi cities to join a massive rally ahead of elections,
in a show of force that could echo the extent of the cleric’s political and sectarian influence.
Sadr said Thursday that the “gang of corruption” is posing a threat to Iraq’s future, demanding that “we [Iraqi] reform ourselves and then our bitter reality, which is currently controlled by corrupt people.”
Sadr’ statements come as his movement is engaged in one of the fiercest electoral battles in years, especially with the Iran-backed militias and forces competing for a majority that would allow them to name the next premier.
Under Iraq’s post-Saddam Hussein governing system, the prime minister has always been a Shia while the largely ceremonial post of president is held by a Kurd and the speaker of parliament is a Sunni.
Sadr, a former nemesis of the United States, who is also considered as the most influential figure in Iraq, is hoping to double his parliamentary share in the upcoming elections and to name the next prime minister.
Dhiaa al-Asadi, a prominent member of the Sadrist movement, said that Sadr “announced that we want the position of prime minister,” referring to a position that is typically agreed via parliamentary negotiations in the absence of a majority.
An informed Iraqi political source had previously revealed to The Arab Weekly that there were electoral understandings between Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi and Sadr. These understandings include the naming of Kadhimi to head the next government.
The source, which spoke on condition of anonymity, also said that these understandings have garnered the support of some Shia forces, including former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and head of the Wisdom Movement Ammar al-Hakim. There is also the support of some other prominent figure, including Parliament Speaker Muhammad al-Halbousi, a Sunni and Masoud Barzani, a Kurd.
Meanwhile, the Sadrist movement is promoting itself among regional and international players as a moderate political force that will save Iraq from Iran-backed militias and corrupt people who have infiltrated the country’s institutions.
Sadr is well aware that his Shia opponents are now in their weakest position. This will make him push to expand his influence within the state through supporting Kadhimi and improving ties with Washington.
In a recent report, the Financial Times said that ,”for some western policymakers worried about Iranian influence in Iraq, the man once dubbed the most dangerous in Iraq by US news media may prove an attractive alternative to more pro-Iran groups.”
“The relationship between Sadr and the west has improved significantly over the last few years,” said Lahib Higel, senior Iraq analyst at Crisis Group told The Financial Times. “Sadr is increasingly being seen as a nationalist alternative and a potential buffer against the more Iran-leaning parties.”
The Financial Times also revealed that Sadrists working in the Iraqi government have met western diplomats, in what is viewed as an illustration “of how much the group has changed.”
“The orientation of the Sadrist movement is to open up to the world,” Asadi said. This should be on the basis of mutual interest, he added. “No country should have the right to intervene in the Iraqi business.”
Sadr was previously viewed as an Iranian proxy, but his close ties with Tehran have soured over the few last years.
“They’re like, tell us more about Sadr, is he really anti-Iranian, what’s his position on the US, what’s the room for co-operation with him,” Marsin Alshamary, a Baghdad-based fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, told The Financial Times.
“No one really buys that he doesn’t have ties to Iran, or that he wouldn’t shift towards an Iranian alliance,” added Alshamary. “But at this moment in time … he can point out the [pro-Iran militias] and say look, they’re the ones who are hurling rockets at the American embassy … we must be the rational, reliable actors who have Iraq’s best interest in mind.”
However, Iraqi political analyst Ali al-Rubaie believes that the premiership in Iraq is not solely depending on election results but rather on Iranian-American settlements about who could be accepted as new prime minister.
Rubaie said in a statement to The Arab Weekly, “Neither the Sadrist movement nor any sectarian Shia bloc has a vision for building the state, a political project for Iraq, or even a real government programme to provide basic services.”
In late August, Sadr reversed his decision to boycott elections and said his movement would take part in order to help “end corruption.”
Sadr, whose political manoeuvres have at times puzzled observers, has appeared under pressure in recent weeks, with pro-Iran groups and individuals attacking him on social media and accusing him of responsibility for Iraq’s recent woes, including electricity shortages and two deadly hospital fires.
The parliamentary vote is set to be held under a new electoral law that reduces the size of constituencies and eliminates list-based voting in favour of votes for individual candidates.
Kadhimi, who came to power in May last year after months of unprecedented mass protests against a ruling class seen as corrupt, inept and subordinate to Tehran, had called the early vote in response to demands by pro-democracy activists.
Sadr’s supporters have been expected to make major gains under the new electoral system.
His Saeroon bloc is currently the largest in parliament, with 54 out of 329 seats.