Forming a new government could take weeks and Sadr faces competition from pro-Iran factions
Ghassan Adnan and
Jared MalsinUpdated Oct. 12, 2021 4:05 am
BAGHDAD—Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, the onetime leader of a rebellion against U.S. forces following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, is poised to become the country’s key political power broker after his movement won the largest share of seats in Sunday’s parliamentary election.
The formation of a new government could be subject to weeks of political horse-trading with no clear leader in view. Mr. Sadr, an independent-minded nationalist, faces fierce competition from Shiite political rivals and pro-Iran hard-liners who wish to pull the country into closer orbit around Tehran.
In Iraq’s political system, the largest bloc in Parliament chooses who becomes prime minister. With a fractured field, it could take some time for Mr. Sadr or other leaders to assemble a majority coalition. After the last vote in 2018, a new government wasn’t installed for eight months.
Initial results released on Monday by Iraq’s election commission showed Mr. Sadr’s movement won 73 seats in the 329-seat Parliament, up from the 54 seats won by a multiparty alliance he led in 2018.
In a surprise setback for Tehran, the Fatah Alliance, broadly aligned with Iran-backed militias demanding the withdrawal of U.S. forces, lost ground in Sunday’s vote, weakening its potential negotiating power in talks toward forming a government. The alliance emerged with 14 seats in the new parliament, down from 48, according to the initial results.ADVERTISEMENT – SCROLL TO CONTINUEhttps://c036c91f67f03561c826fe1bf94d21b6.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html?n=0
One of Iraq’s largest Iranian-backed militias, the Hezbollah Brigades, rejected the election result. Without citing any evidence, the group’s spokesman called the election “the biggest fraud operation in Iraq’s modern history” in a tweet. The militia vowed to “stand firmly and strongly to bring back things to the correct track and will not allow anyone to humiliate Iraqi people,” he said.
The United Nations, which deployed observers to monitor the election throughout the country, said the vote “proceeded smoothly and featured significant technical and procedural improvements.”
In a televised victory speech on Monday night, Mr. Sadr played up his core themes of Iraqi independence and political reform, vowing to usher in a new government free from the influence of both the U.S. and Iran.
“We thank God for supporting reform through its biggest bloc which is an Iraqi bloc, neither eastern nor western,” he said.
Mr. Sadr’s supporters and analysts credited his movement’s well-organized election campaign, including candidate recruitment and voter mobilization efforts, for helping it appeal to a broad cross-section of Iraqis and pull ahead in the low-turnout election.
“Sadr is an Iraqi loyalist nationalist and does not listen or get influenced by foreign pressure,” said Badr Al Zayadi, a former lawmaker from Mr. Sadr’s movement. “He listens to Iraq only.”
Mr. Sadr’s expanded influence over the government will offer him an opportunity to seek inroads into sections of the Iraqi state where he doesn’t already hold sway. Some Sadrists aspire to take control of the premiership, but doing so would mean taking on the risks of being identified with failing government services. Mr. Sadr, as a cleric, has often avoided being closely associated with day-to-day politics.
“At the end of the day there’s a question if they would want to take on the responsibility and potential accountability of dominating the government completely,” said Lahib Higel, a senior Iraq analyst at International Crisis Group.
Former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition won 37 seats in Parliament. Mr. Maliki was widely blamed for corruption and sectarian rule that helped fuel the rise of Islamic State in 2014, when he resigned.
The initial results don’t include votes cast by members of the security forces and others who participated in a separate day of voting. The final vote count could result in a small shift in the allocation of seats but is unlikely to alter the overall balance of power
Some 2,500 American troops are still in Iraq. While President Biden has agreed to remove all combat forces by the end of the year, following the U.S.’s exit from Afghanistan, many are expected to remain in training and support roles.
Pro-Iran militias have stepped up attacks on U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria, countered by U.S. airstrikes, and their political supporters attempted to make the issue the centerpiece of the election campaign.
Mr. Sadr kept a sharper focus on the country’s economic crisis during the election campaign, and is regarded as more moderate than some of the Shiite factions that lean toward Iran.
U.S. officials say a government under Mr. Sadr’s sway would be less likely to take steps to accelerate a full American withdrawal, despite his history as one of the U.S. leading adversaries following the invasion that uprooted the regime of Saddam Hussein.
Sunday’s election was held earlier than scheduled as a concession to protesters angered over Iraq’s cratering economy and endemic corruption. It was billed in some quarters as a test for democracy, and while the vote itself went off relatively peacefully despite a handful of shootings, the turnout was low at 41%—down from 44% in 2018’s ballot—pointing to widespread disillusionment with the political system.
Separately on Monday, the current leader, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, said the country’s security forces captured a top Islamic State leader during an operation in Turkey.
Mr. Kadhimi said in a tweet that security forces had captured Sami Jasim, an official in charge of the militant group’s finances and a former deputy of the group’s slain leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Mr. Jasim was wanted by the U.S. government for organizing Islamic State’s illicit trade in oil, gas, antiquities and minerals. Those sources of revenue helped fuel the group’s rise as it took over a swath of Iraq and Syria in 2014.
Fadhil Abu Radheef, a security analyst close to Iraq’s intelligence services, said Mr. Jasim, a former member of al Qaeda in Iraq, fled the country in 2017 and was arrested last week in cooperation with Turkish authorities. Turkish officials didn’t immediately comment on the arrest.
Islamic State lost its last foothold of territory in Syria in 2019 following years of military operations in both Iraq and Syria backed by the U.S. military and a separate campaign by Iranian-backed forces.
Mr. Kadhimi, who was appointed prime minister last year, didn’t run for reelection but has been positioning himself for possible reappointment in the talks that are expected to follow Sunday’s election.
Write to Jared Malsin at email@example.com