Iraq’s parliamentary elections last month shuffled the key players, with the movement of Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr taking nearly a fifth of seats, according to results released Tuesday.
But without an absolute majority in the fragmented 329-seat legislature, parties will have to form alliances.
Led by firebrand Sadr, the Sadrist movement won 73 seats in parliament, expanding its haul from 54 in the outgoing parliament.
Sadr is the scion of an influential clerical family. He raised a rebellion after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq and has now reinvented himself as a reform champion.
A self-styled defender against all forms of corruption, Sadr has distinguished himself from other top Shia figures by seeking distance from both Iranian and US influence.
The mercurial Sadr has yet again emerged as kingmaker following last month’s parliamentary polls.
Today, as in past years following the overthrow of former president Saddam Hussein, Iraq cannot ignore the grey-bearded preacher who once led a militia against American and Iraqi government forces.
Now he wants his Sadrist movement to lead the formation of the next government.
The composition of this government and who will be prime minister, will depend on the outcome of negotiations between Sadr and his opponents.
Sadr wants an accommodation with Iran that would allow him to compete against its allies politically without the constraints currently imposed by the “greater coercive power” of the armed pro-Iran factions, said Ben Robin-D’Cruz, a specialist in Shia movements at Aarhus University in Denmark.
“But the Iranians have been reluctant to do that, because they don’t want to empower Sadr and they don’t consider him reliable,” the analyst said.
Sadr retains a devoted following of millions among the country’s majority Shia population, including in the poor Baghdad district of Sadr City.
“He can occupy the streets. No one in Iraq can do it as well as him,” said Hamdi Malik, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Perhaps uniquely in Iraq, Sadr has “a very obedient base” which also comprises a formidable online presence attacking his rivals in cyberspace, Malik said.
“Everything is revolving around him. That in Iraq is very important,” he added.
Sadr initially said he would not take part in the parliamentary election but then reversed course, saying his movement would participate in order to help “end corruption.”
Robin-D’Cruz said Sadr “tries to position himself simultaneously in the centre of the political system while distancing himself from it.”
His religious character, the researcher added, “allows him to create this illusion of transcending politics.”
With Sadr expected to play a key role in the defining the contours of the upcoming political landscape in Iraq, observers say that the nature of a fragmented political system, based on ethnic and sectarian quotas, means the Shia cleric will have to trade with rivals to form a coalition.
The military clout of pro-Iran militias, the observers add, ensures they will almost certainly have to be part of the equation.
Hence, they say, that it would be naive to assume that Sadr, who has always had an ambiguous relationship with Tehran, will act as an anti-Iranian force.
The Fatah (Conquest) Alliance parliamentary grouping, the political arm of the Shia Hashed al-Shaabi former paramilitary force, saw its representation plummet from 48 to 17 seats.
The alliance had made its debut in parliament following the last election in 2018, shortly after the Hashed helped defeat the Islamic State group.
The alliance’s leader Hadi al-Ameri also heads the Badr organisation, one of the Hashed factions.
Hashed leaders had earlier rejected the preliminary results as a “scam”, and their supporters held street protests chanting “No to fraud.”
The alliance has consistently called for the expulsion of US troops from Iraq.
Another pro-Iran faction is the State of Law Alliance, an offshoot of the Daawa Party, both led by Nuri al-Maliki, who was prime minister from 2006 to 2014.
A surprise outcome for this Hashed partner saw it strengthen its political base from 24 to 33 seats.
The all-new Alliance of State Forces brings together the groups of former prime minister Haider al-Abadi, who led the fight against ISIS and Ammar al-Hakim, who leads the moderates in the Shiite camp.
With a meagre four seats, they have lost their clout, after having earned 42 and 19 seats respectively in the previous polls.
In addition, 43 candidates unaffiliated to political parties have been elected as “independents.”
However, experts believe some may end up being co-opted by the major parties.
The Taqaddum (Progress) movement, led by speaker of parliament Mohammed al-Halbussi, won 37 seats in parliament.
That makes it the second-largest force in the chamber.
He was elected speaker with the support of the pro-Iran blocs, but has cultivated relations with regional powers including the United Arab Emirates.
Taqaddum’s main Sunni competitor is the Azm (Determination) movement of controversial politician Khamis al-Khanjar, who has been sanctioned by Washington amid accusations of corruption. Azm won 14 seats.
Anti-establishment players and Kurds
Imtidad, a newly-created party representing the protest movement that began in 2019, took nine seats.
The party presents itself as “a non-sectarian, anti-nationalist, anti-racist political movement, which seeks to build a civilian state”.
It is popular in the city of Nasiriyah, the epicentre of the demonstrations in the poor Shiite south.
Autonomous Kurdistan, in northern Iraq, has long been dominated by two parties.
The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of the Barzani clan, won 31 seats.
The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of the Talabani clan took 17, under the Coalition of Kurdistan banner.
Kurdish opposition party New Generation jumped from four to nine seats.