After Iraqi Election, the Antichrist Emerges as an Unlikely U.S. Ally

The U.S. once threatened to kill Muqtada al-Sadr as his militia battled occupying forces. Now, the powerful cleric is helping Washington by keeping Iran at bay.

By Jane ArrafOct. 16, 2021

BAGHDAD — Standing at a podium with an Iraqi flag by his side, the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr looked the part of a statesman as he read a postelection address.

In the 18 years since he formed the Mahdi Army militia to battle occupying U.S. forces, the onetime firebrand has refined his delivery. His formal Arabic is more proficient, and his voice more assured. Looking up to address the camera, he raised a finger in emphasis in remarks carefully crafted to send messages to both the United States and Iran after his party picked up seats in last week’s parliamentary election.

In 2004, as Mr. al-Sadr’s fighters took on U.S. forces with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades in Baghdad and across the southern provinces, the United States pledged to kill or capture the Shiite cleric.

Next to Al Qaeda, he posed the biggest threat to the American occupation in Iraq, miring U.S. troops in fighting in the streets and alleys of Iraqi cities as the military fought both Sunni and Shiite-based insurgencies.

Although still unpredictable, the cleric is consistently an Iraqi nationalist and now seems to be emerging as an arm’s-length American ally, helping the United States by preventing Iraq from tilting further into Iran’s axis.

“All embassies are welcome, as long as they do not interfere in Iraqi affairs and government formation,” Mr. al-Sadr said in a reference aimed at the United States, whose embassy was stormed two years ago by what were believed to be members of Kitaib Hezbollah, one of the biggest Iranian-backed Iraqi militias. “Iraq is for Iraqis only.”

In preliminary results from last Sunday’s elections, the Sadrist Movement gained roughly 20 seats, giving it up to 73 seats in the 329-member parliament. That leaves Mr. al-Sadr with the biggest single bloc in Parliament and a decisive voice in choosing the next Iraqi prime minister.

In his remarks, the cleric made a pointed reference to Iranian-backed militias, some of which have grown more powerful than Iraq’s official security forces and pose a threat to the United States in Iraq.

“From now on, arms must be restricted in the hands of the state,” he said in the address, broadcast on Iraqi state television. “The use of weapons shall be prevented outside of the state’s framework.” Even for those claiming to be the “resistance” to the U.S. presence, he said, “it is time for the people to live in peace, without occupation, terrorism, militias, kidnapping and fear.”

The self-styled resistance groups are the same Iranian-backed militias that launched drone and rocket attacks on the American Embassy and U.S. military bases after the U.S. killing of a leading Iranian commander, Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, and a senior Iraqi security official in Baghdad last year.

An aide to the Shiite cleric said disarming groups that are not under government control would also apply to Mr. al-Sadr’s own militia forces.n=0

“No country wants forces that are stronger than its army,” said Dhia al-Assadi, a former top official in the cleric’s political movement. He said Mr. al-Sadr would leave it to the incoming government to decide whether U.S. forces should remain in Iraq.

The United States has agreed to withdraw all combat troops from the country by Dec. 31, although Washington does not consider its troops there currently to be on a combat mission. Under that agreement, the number of U.S. forces — about 2,000 in Iraq at Baghdad’s invitation — is expected to remain the same.

“That is labeling or classifying the troops as trainers and not fighters,” said Mr. al-Assadi, who served as the head of Mr. al-Sadr’s former Ahrar political bloc. “The decision should be revisited again and decided by Parliament and the government.”

Mr. al-Assadi said he does not foresee any change in an existing ban on senior officials of the Sadrist Movement from meeting with U.S. or British officials.

Once a fierce sectarian defender of Iraq’s Shiite majority, Mr. al-Sadr has expanded his reach in recent years, reaching out to Sunnis, Christians and other minorities. After telling his followers to protect Christians, young men from Mr. Sadr’s stronghold in the mostly Shiite neighborhood of Baghdad’s Sadr City began wearing large crosses around their necks in a sign of solidarity. In a previous election, the Sadrists formed an alliance with the Communist Party, which is officially atheist.

Externally, he has fostered relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates at a time when those countries’ Sunni Arab rulers were hostile to Iraq’s Shiite-led government. Domestically, one of his main demands is to clean up Iraq’s dysfunctional and deeply corrupt political system, which appoints people to senior government posts on the basis of party loyalty rather than competence.

“He has grown and evolved,” said Nabeel Khoury, a former U.S. State Department official who served in Iraq in 2003. “But I think to some extent we underestimated him in the very beginning.”

Mr. Khoury said that he was approached in 2003 by Mr. al-Sadr’s aides as Iraq’s first governing council was being decided.

“We had coffee, we talked and they said Sadr was interested in playing a political role,” said Mr. Khoury, a fellow at the Atlantic Council. But Iraqi political figures who had returned from exile did not want Mr. al-Sadr involved, Mr. Khoury said, and the United States followed their counsel.

A few months later, the cleric formed his Mahdi Army militia to fight occupying troops.

When U.S. forces had an opportunity to kill Mr. al-Sadr during a battle in Najaf, Washington told them to stand down, also on the advice of the Iraqi expatriate politicians, said Mr. Khoury, adding: “They knew if Sadr was killed it would become a big problem for them.”

Mr. al-Sadr, 47, is the youngest son of a revered cleric, Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, who was assassinated by Saddam Hussein in 1999 after demanding religious freedom for Iraq’s Shiites. The Sadr family commands the loyalty of millions, many of them poor and disposed, most of whom believe his election win was ordained by God.

In Sadr City, the Sadrist organization provides food, support for orphans and widows and many other services the Iraqi government fails to deliver.

“He would like to achieve certain objectives, and the main objective is social justice,” said Mr. al-Assadi of the cleric’s aims. He likened Mr. al-Sadr’s goals to those of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or Mahatma Ghandi.

But unlike the Black civil rights leader or India’s pacifist icon, Mr. al-Sadr has overseen an armed militia that has waxed and waned but never entirely gone away.

The Mahdi Army has been blamed for fueling Iraq’s past sectarian violence. As it battled with Sunni fighters of Al Qaeda for supremacy in Iraq between 2006 and 2008, Mr. al-Sadr’s fighters were accused of running death squads and conducting sectarian cleansings of Baghdad neighborhoods.

Mr. al-Sadr has said that not all the fighters were under his control.

In 2008, after losing a fight with Iraqi government forces for control of Basra, Mr. al-Sadr — who lacks the religious credentials of his father — abruptly left for Iran to pursue his theological studies.

Yet he has long had an uneasy relationship with Tehran, and while he cannot afford to antagonize its leaders, he advocates an Iraq free of both Iranian and American influence.

“I think he has his own space in which he walks, and his base is not dictated by any country, especially not the Iranians,” said Elie Abouaoun, a director at the United States Institute of Peace, a U.S. government-funded think tank. “I think that he is much less sectarian than many, many others because he has a nationalist vision of Iraq.”

Despite Iraq election win, the Antichrist still has to work with the Iranian Horn

Despite Iraq election win, Sadr still has to work with pro-Iran groups

BAGHDAD–Firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr may be Iraq’s big election winner but he will still have to haggle with his opponents, linked to armed pro-Iranian groups, to forge a new government.

War-scarred Iraq, an oil-rich country plagued by corruption and poverty, last Sunday held its fifth parliamentary elections since the 2003 US-led invasion toppled president Saddam Hussein.

Sadr, a Shia preacher who once commanded an anti-US militia, had campaigned as a nationalist and criticised the influence of big neighbour Iran, which has grown strongly since Saddam’s fall.

The political maverick had initially vowed to boycott the polls but then sent his movement into the race, proclaiming in recent months that it will be he who chooses Iraq’s next prime minister.

At first glance, his bloc’s election win would seem to reinforce that view. The Sadrists won 70 out of the assembly’s 329 seats, according to preliminary results, boosting their lead from the previous parliament.

But analysts say Sadr will now have to come to terms with his adversaries, the pro-Iran Shia parties linked to the Hashed al-Shaabi network of paramilitary forces.

The Fatah (Conquest) Alliance, Hashed’s political wing, lost more than half of its 48 deputies, according to preliminary results.

“The results give Sadr an upper hand when it comes to politics and his negotiating position, but that is not the only thing that is important here,” said Renad Mansour of the Chatham House think tank.

The Hashed “has lost political power by losing seats, but they still have coercive power and that will be used in the bargaining,” he said of the movement, which according to estimates has over 160,000 men under arms.

Despite the implicit “threat of violence” Mansour does not predict an escalation, but he warned, “That doesn’t mean that each side won’t use threats and sometimes violence … to show that they have that power.”

Sour mood

Iraqi politics have been dominated by factions representing the Shia majority since the fall of Saddam’s Sunni-led regime.

They are, however, increasingly split, especially on their attitude toward powerful Shia neighbour Iran, which competes with the United States for strategic influence in Iraq.

The Hashed were formed in 2014 to fight the Sunni-extremist Islamic State (ISIS) group and entered the legislature for the first time in the 2018 vote, after playing a major role in defeating ISIS.

Opposition activists accuse Hashed’s armed groups, which are now supposedly integrated into Iraq’s state security forces, of being beholden to Iran and acting as an instrument of oppression against critics.

A youth-led anti-government protest movement that broke out two years ago ended after hundreds of activists were killed and the movement has blamed pro-Iranian armed groups for the bloodshed.

Washington, meanwhile, accuses Tehran-backed armed groups of being behind rocket and drone attacks on its military and diplomatic interests.

Among many Iraqis, the mood over Iranian interference has soured and Sadr voiced that sentiment after the election.

He attacked “the resistance,” the name pro-Iran armed groups give themselves in the Middle East.

“Arms should be in the hands of the state and their use outside of that framework prohibited, even for those who claim to be from the resistance,” he said in a clear reference to Hashed.

Rejecting election results

The Hashed and their allies denounced the election outcome as a “scam.”

“These elections are the worst Iraq has known since 2003,” charged the head of Houqouq, a party close to the Hezbollah Brigades which are under the Hashed umbrella.

The faction’s military spokesman accused Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi of being the “sponsor of electoral fraud.”

Amid the heated rhetoric, the political blocs are seen to be starting the process of post-election haggling aimed at forming parliamentary blocs ahead of finding a prime minister.

One pro-Iran figure and Hashed partner made surprising gains, former Prime Minister Nuri Maliki, who served from 2006 to 2014 and whose State of Law Alliance can count on more than 30 seats.

Fatah is looking at Maliki’s party and smaller groups to create the largest parliamentary bloc and nominate him as prime minister, said Hamdi Malik, of the Washington Institute for Near East Study.

“This is very hard to achieve, but it can form their starting point to enter into negotiations with Sadr to secure a lot of positions in the next government,” Malik said.

The most likely outcome, the analyst added, is “a compromise PM with a lot of Sadrist control over him”.

Political scientist Ali al-Baidar said that, whatever happens, Hashed won’t be content sitting in opposition.

“There is no culture of opposition in Iraqi politics,” he said. “Everyone wants some of the power.”

The Antichrist mercurial militia leader turned kingmaker

Moqtada al-Sadr: a mercurial militia leader turned kingmaker

The scion of a revered cleric positioned himself as an outsider but has been drawn into Iraq’s corrupt politics

   October 15, 2021 3:33 pm by 

Last Sunday, Moqtada al-Sadr pulled on a black face mask and climbed into a decrepit-looking silver Mitsubishi. The militia leader-cum-cleric was heading to cast his ballot in Iraq’s general elections. Within 48 hours, he would command the biggest bloc in parliament.

The poll confirmed Sadr’s ability to marshal more electoral clout than any other Iraqi leader. His bloc grew from 54 seats in 2018, to 73 of the 329 available today. In a victory speech on Monday, he combined religion and nationalism with pledges to clean up the political system that his own followers are enmeshed in.

“[M]oving forward, the government and the parties will not control the money and resources, for they belong to the people,” he said, reflecting Iraqis’ bitter disillusionment with their post-2003 politicians, perceived to have looted the oil wealth of OPEC’s second-largest producer. It was not the first time the people of Iraq have heard these promises from him.https://f952eab14b4d44a1f3487acb2374792b.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html?n=0

Militant, self-proclaimed champion of the downtrodden, kingmaker and scion of a revered clerical family from Iraq’s Shia majority, the mercurial Sadr has reinvented himself many times. Now 47 with a white beard, he no longer resembles the younger man who in 2004 led an insurrection against occupying British and American troops, and the sectarian bloodletting that followed.

Although he still commands the Peace Brigades, a paramilitary whose supporters insist they are a state-sponsored militia, Sadr intoned this week that: “It is now time for the people to live peacefully without occupation, terrorism, or militias that kidnap, terrorise, and detract from the role of the state.” 

Dhiaa al-Asadi, a senior figure in the Sadrist Movement, first met Sadr when he was working for his father in his twenties. Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, one of Iraq’s most revered Shia clerics, had instigated a religious revivalist movement blending Shiism with social justice. He openly challenged then-president Saddam Hussein, who oppressed the Shia. Fearing the ayatollah’s huge network of followers, Saddam had him assassinated in 1999, as he was driving with two other sons in a Mitsubishi — the same model Sadr symbolically rode in to cast his vote last week.

Asadi described the young Sadr as “very serious.” Despite having a lighter side — he once compared the Sadrist Movement to a football team — he largely remains private and austere. 

While lacking his father’s scholarly qualifications, Sadr inherited his movement after the 2003 US-led invasion. Unlike other Shia opposition figures, Sadr had stayed in Iraq during Saddam’s reign. His bastion was the sprawling Shia slum in Baghdad originally known as Saddam City — renamed Sadr City after the leader’s demise. Highly popular among working-class Shia Iraqis, Sadr built a seemingly “cult-like following that almost no other leader in the Arab world has . . . largely because of his father’s legacy”, despite being “unpredictable, recalcitrant, moody, undisciplined”, says a researcher who met him several times during the occupation and requested anonymity.

After initially supporting Saddam’s ouster, Sadr soon fell foul of the occupiers, who issued a “kill or capture” warrant for him over his suspected involvement in the 2003 murder of a pro-western Shia cleric. By 2004, he had decided to fight back. But the anti-US insurgency soon became bloody civil strife, with fighting between Sunni and Shia extremist groups, Iraqi state forces and foreign troops. Sadr’s Mahdi Army, with help from Iran, “was the cutting edge of the Shia military offensive against the Sunni”, according to Patrick Cockburn, author of Moqtada al-Sadr and the Battle for the Future of Iraq

Sadr stood down the Mahdi Army in 2008 after the Iraqi government, supported by the US, launched a major offensive against it. He has since had an ambiguous relationship with Tehran, positioning himself as a nationalist opposed to all foreign influence while periodically studying and taking shelter in Qom, Iran’s Shia holy city. 

When he moved into politics, Sadr portrayed himself as a champion of the downtrodden. As Iraqis grew disillusioned with their kleptocratic politicians, he deployed street muscle in anti-corruption protests. In 2016, his supporters stormed the Green Zone — a walled off square-mile in central Baghdad housing embassies and Iraq’s parliament — and roughed up lawmakers. His growing influence attracted attention. In 2017, another young populist, Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, invited Sadr to Saudi Arabia. 

But despite his outsider image, Sadr’s partisans have become part of the Iraqi state. In 2018 elections, he won the most parliamentary seats, giving his party control of ministries and top civil service positions, allowing it to distribute jobs and benefits to supporters. When widespread anti-establishment demonstrations erupted in late 2019, Sadr initially backed them. But he later turned on the youthful protesters, leaving them distrustful of the Sadrist movement. 

Sadr’s appeal is now limited to his diehard base. Yet his party’s electoral machine “skilfully [took] advantage of the new electoral system and fully [used] its voting power,” according to analyst Harith Hasan. Despite controlling parliament’s largest bloc, Sadr must haggle over a new cabinet with other factions, some of which are armed and reject the election results. And with many Iraqis arguing that his own people are corrupt, Sadr’s claim that “all the corrupt will be held accountable” will now be tested.

chloe.cornish@ft.com

The Antichrist: The ultimate kingmaker in the next Iraqi government

Muqtada al-Sadr: The ultimate kingmaker in the next Iraqi government

Middle East 17:15, 15-Oct-2021

Muqtada al-Sadr: The ultimate kingmaker in the next Iraqi government

Li Ruikang

Muqtada al-Sadr has always had a front-row seat in deciding the formation of Iraq’s governments after parliamentary elections; this time he seems likely to be the ultimate kingmaker backed by his party’s biggest ever electoral victory.

At a time when Iraqis are increasingly disillusioned by the political establishment, Sadr’s bloc, led by the Sadrist movement, kept its position as the party with the most seats in Sunday’s elections, expanding to 73 from 54 in the 329-seat parliament.

Early results suggest, however, that only 41 percent of the electorate headed to the polls in the lowest turnout in the country’s history.

Pro-Iran Shiite parties, Sadr’s main rivals, suffered a stunning defeat, losing nearly two-thirds of their seats and now have just 14. Meanwhile, a Sunni bloc and a Shiite party led by former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, an Iran ally, emerged in second and third place, respectively.

While the next government will likely be formed based on a consensus among the country’s largest political factions and possibly foreign powers, the Sadrists‘ unrivaled share of parliamentary seats gives them greater leeway in talks with other sectarian blocs, including Kurdish and Sunni parties and particularly Iran-allied Shiite groups, and shun foreign interference.

Sadr, a prominent Shiite cleric and founder of the Sadrist movement, does not himself run for public office, but the input of the 47-year-old will carry the most weight during the weeks or even months of negotiations that are likely to follow.

It is unclear whether Prime Minister Mustafa al-Khadimi, who assumed office last year after waves of nationwide protests forced the previous government to resign, will receive Sadr’s support to remain.

Sadr shares similar interests with Khadimi, a U.S.-favored former intelligence chief, and analysts have speculated that the Sadrists’ electoral win was secured with tacit American backing, which would have been unimaginable 15 years ago.

“We welcome all embassies that do not interfere in Iraq’s internal affairs,” he said in a victory speech delivered on Tuesday, adding that celebrations would take place in the streets “without weapons.”

Firebrand nationalist, shapeshifter, or genuine reformist?

Before Sadr’s rise to the national stage, he spent years pursuing religious studies in Qom, a Shiite holy city in Iran. After the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, he returned, formed the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia group recently renamed as the Peace Brigade, and fought fiercely against U.S. forces.

He gained a reputation as a notorious warlord responsible for the bloody sectarian violence in the wake of the U.S. invasion, but has later transitioned to become a more statesmanlike figure and one of the most influential power brokers in Iraqi politics.

His political bloc, based on an anti-establishment, nationalist platform, has consistently prevailed in elections held after the introduction of a democratic system in 2005. Its support base comes largely from underprivileged, working-class Shiites in the poor Iraqi south, who deplore the country’s entrenched corruption.

Unlike Iran-allied Shiite parties, Sadr’s unifying non-sectarian message appeals to members of other sectarian groups, minorities that often favor a more decentralized Iraq.

To his supporters, Sadr also serves as a spiritual leader who provides guidance and inspiration, even though he lacks the requisite religious qualifications and authority to issue fatwas, or Islamic rulings.

The mid-ranked cleric comes from a prestigious family that has, by far, produced the most influential clerics in modern Iraq. His father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, a storied resistance leader to Sunni ruler Saddam Hussein, was killed by the regime in 1999 – a death that helped to lay the foundation for political activism among Iraq’s Shiite community, which makes up roughly 65 percent of the Iraqi population.

Inheriting some of his father’s legacies, Sadr has tried to project himself as a staunch corruption fighter, a pioneer in reforms that would root out the country’s longtime woes, and an alternative to the almost binary political landscape that has long characterized Iraqi politics. Most political factions find themselves either fiercely pro-Iran and anti-U.S. or the exact opposite.

In doing so, the populist leader has taken far-reaching measures such as dissolving some of his own militia groups and banishing corrupt politicians from his own ranks, though these efforts sometimes take a backseat as his influence grows in the country.

But he is not without controversy. As someone who prides himself as the champion of Iraqi protesters, he does not appear to be always standing beside them. When things once spiraled out of his control, the protest advocate helped quash them violently.

The way his movement operates also calls into question whether some of his pledges are genuine. As an influential parliamentary bloc that often controls certain cabinet ministries, the Sadrists have filled a big chunk of civil service positions with their loyalists. And like other powerful factions, they have free-wheeling access to public resources, often diverted for their own purposes. Some of these misappropriations have resulted in deadly disasters, while non-partisan, technocratic ministers, often preferred by Iraqis, are left with little authority to govern.

His entanglement with Iran, however, helps explain some of his contentious moves as he has to compete against his biggest rivals – Iran-aligned Shiite parties, which have a sizable group of militias at their disposal.

As a group made up largely of Shiite Muslims, the Sadrist movement has been innately vulnerable to Iranian influence. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iran’s paramilitary group, has over the years managed to funnel a considerable amount of funding into the movement’s rank-and-file members, which has turned some of them against its leader.

At times, Sadr would adjust his ostensible anti-Iran outlook, making regular visits to Tehran and sometimes acting as the mediator between angry Iraqis and Iranian leaders. His balancing act is considered by some as a sign of departure from his own platform, while others praise him for making the effort to reconcile with Iran, which supplies one-third of Iraq’s electricity.

However, the cozy relationship he enjoyed intermittently with Tehran seems destined to wane as the U.S. is expected to pull all its forces out of Iraq by the end of this year. Understanding what that means for Iraq – a potentially unbridled growth of Iranian influence that would erode its sovereignty, Sadr has repeatedly signaled his willingness to preserve some American sway and lent his support to issues that suit U.S. interests.

The mercurial leader is, nonetheless, persistent in addressing the country’s core problems. He has pledged to eliminate militias that belong mostly to pro-Iran factions and overhaul a political system largely based on patronage networks – with which Iraqis have been increasingly frustrated in recent years.

In Tuesday’s TV address, Sadr called for “confining arms to the hand of the state. It is forbidden to use them outside it; even from those who pretend resistance, whatsoever.”

“Thank God who glorified reform with its biggest bloc,” he said. “A bloc that is neither eastern nor western.”

With his smashing success in Sunday’s vote, Sadr has a golden opportunity to fulfill what he envisions for Iraq, or what he needs to do to consolidate his power, but either way, the same woes he appears bent on stamping out could prevent him from going any further.

To govern Iraq effectively, the Antichrist will abandon factionalism

To govern Iraq effectively, Moqtada al-Sadr must abandon factionalism

Sectarian politics have blighted the country, leaving voters disillusioned with their leaders

   October 13, 2021 2:36 pm by 

Moqtada al-Sadr, the maverick Shia cleric who staged an insurrection after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, came first in Iraqi general elections on Sunday. This confirmed his position as probably the country’s most powerful and popular figure. Whether this will make it any easier to govern Iraq, a prostrate state contested between the US and Iran, and a frequent arena of Sunni jihadist carnage, is questionable.

Preliminary results gave the Sadrist bloc 73 out of 329 seats in parliament, up from the 54 they won in 2018. The Fatah party of the alliance of Iran-backed militias from the Popular Mobilisation Forces (Hashd al-Shaabi) suffered a sharp reverse, winning as few as 20 seats, compared to 48 in the last election, and crying foul. A Sunni and another Shia party both scored in the high 30s, while Kurdish parties altogether won 60 seats. Months of haggling have already begun, but Sadr may determine the outcome.

Turnout was down, at 41 per cent, the lowest since postwar elections began in 2005. Iraqis since then have braved bombs and bullets to vote. But mass protest has gradually displaced voting as a way to complain about the oil-rich state’s inability to provide regular electricity or clean water, health, education, or often even basic security — and against a ruling class treating office as booty under the spoils system known as muhasasa, a formula for looting resources under the cover of sectarian power-sharing.https://bca9c15065410df7f6d8a4bca93c09da.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html?n=0

In October 2019, young activists launched a civic uprising that brought down the previous government. They were driven from the streets by the Tehran-affiliated militias and security forces, who killed nearly 600 demonstrators. This suppression meant many young Iraqis (two-thirds of the population are under 30) spurned Sunday’s polls, though a dozen candidates from the Tishreen (October) movement that they formed appear to have won seats.

The backlash against the militias and Fatah coalition, and widespread loathing of Iran’s attempt to turn Iraq into a protectorate, even among the majority Shia, is a political setback to Tehran. But the current prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, has struggled to bring these private armies under state control. They played a leading role in defeating Isis after it took a third of Iraq into its caliphate in 2014, and remain a power in the land. Seeing the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan, moreover, the militias — which have duelled with US forces for years — may believe the time is ripe to drive out the 2,500 remaining American soldiers.

Moqtada al-Sadr, scion of the clerical aristocracy that opposed the Saddam Hussein dictatorship, toppled in 2003, and formerly champion of the Shia dispossessed, has reinvented himself as an Iraqi nationalist who wants the Americans and Iranians out of Iraq. He has nurtured a populist image by railing against Shia rivals and corruption. As an Islamist he appeals to higher authority and pretends to be above politics, while ruthlessly pursuing power.

The Sadrists’ result might have been better had Moqtada not first backed and then betrayed the 2019 uprising. His volte-face was possibly a result of pressure from Tehran, which was simultaneously facing a popular revolt against the Hizbollah-backed government in Lebanon, and would shortly lose Qassem Soleimani, the revolutionary guard commander leading Iran’s Shia Arab proxies.

Since 2019, Sadr has emulated some of the tactics of Hizbollah and colonised Iraq’s institutions and ministries with his cadres. They all but control departments such as defence, interior and communications, as well as heading the cabinet secretariat that apportions top positions. Although Sadr notionally disbanded his Mahdi Army in 2008, he revived it — under the name of Peace Companies — in 2014 as Isis forces approached Baghdad and the Shia shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala.

Iraq’s next prime minister will either be nominated by him or require his consent.

Kadhimi, the sitting premier and former intelligence chief, who came to power after the protests that toppled his predecessor, is on a bit of a roll. Although his real challenge is to domesticate the lawless Shia militias, he claimed success for the recent capture of Sami Jassim al-Jubouri, the Isis number two and moneyman. Last month Total, the French oil company, committed to investing $27bn in Iraqi energy. Kadhimi also convened a summit in Baghdad on regional de-escalation, attended by arch-rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as Turkey and Egypt — which won him kudos in the US, Europe and the Gulf, where he is seen as a safe pair of hands.

Kadhimi wants to continue as prime minister. What Sadr thinks about that is unclear. What has been abundantly clear until now, though, is that while ordinary Iraqis are scrabbling to live and demanding decent government, their leaders have been unwilling or unable to share power and resources. In a zero-sum equation they cannot even agree on a national narrative and social compact. If Sadr really is a nationalist his first job is to eschew factional and sectarian advantage and put Iraq and Iraqis first

Antichrist Emerges as Kingmaker After Iraq Election

Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr arriving to vote Sunday at a polling station in Najaf, Iraq.PHOTO: ALAA AL-MARJANI/REUTERS

Shiite Cleric Moqtada al-Sadr Emerges as Kingmaker After Iraq Election

Forming a new government could take weeks and Sadr faces competition from pro-Iran factions

By

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.

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, seen Sunday in Baghdad, said the country’s security forces captured a top Islamic State leader.PHOTO: IRAQI PRIME MINISTER MEDIA OFFIC/VIA REUTERS

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 jared.malsin@wsj.com

Record Low Turnout Reported for the Antichrist

Record Low Turnout Reported for Iraq’s Parliamentary Elections

HEADLINEOCT 11, 2021

Iraqis headed to the polls Sunday for just the fifth parliamentary election since the U.S. overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Turnout was just 41%, with many Iraqis refusing to vote. This is Hussein Sabeh, a 20-year-old Iraqi from Basra.

Hussein Sabeh: “I did not vote, to be honest. It is not worth it. There is nothing that would benefit me or others. I see youth that have degrees and no jobs. Before the elections, they all came to them. After the elections, who knows?

Iraq’s vote in the Antichrist hoping for a change


Iraq’s parliamentary vote marred by boycott, voter apathy

Sunday, October 10th 2021, 12:15 AM EDTUpdated: Sunday, October 10th 2021, 4:06 PM EDT

By QASSIM ABDUL-ZAHRA
Associated Press

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqis voted Sunday in parliamentary elections held months ahead of schedule as a concession to a youth-led popular uprising against corruption and mismanagement.

But the voting was marked by widespread apathy and a boycott by many of the young activists who thronged the streets of Baghdad and Iraq’s southern provinces in late 2019. Tens of thousands of people took part in the mass protests and were met by security forces firing live ammunition and tear gas. More than 600 people were killed and thousands injured within just a few months.

Although authorities gave in and called the early elections, the death toll and the heavy-handed crackdown – as well as a string of targeted assassinations – prompted many who took part in the protests to later call for a boycott of the vote.

Polls closed at 1500 GMT (1800 local time) following 11 hours of voting. Results are expected within the next 24 hours, according to the independent body that oversees Iraq’s election. But negotiations to choose a prime minister tasked with forming a government are expected to drag on for weeks or even months.

The election was the sixth held since the fall of Saddam Hussein after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Many were skeptical that independent candidates from the protest movement stood a chance against well-entrenched parties and politicians, many of them backed by powerful armed militias.

Minutes after polls closed, fireworks organized by Baghdad’s municipality went off in the city’s landmark Tahrir Square, where demonstrators had set up tents for several months starting in October 2019. The protests fizzled out by February of the following year, due to the security crackdown and later, the coronavirus pandemic. 

Today, the square stands largely empty. The country faces huge economic and security challenges, and although most Iraqis long for change, few expect it to happen as a result of the elections.

Muna Hussein, a 22-year-old cinematic makeup artist, said she boycotted the election because she did not feel there was a safe environment “with uncontrolled weapons everywhere,” a reference to the mainly Shiite militias backed by neighboring Iran. 

“In my opinion, it isn’t easy to hold free and fair elections under the current circumstances,” she said. 

Amir Fadel, a 22-year-old car dealer, disagreed. “I don’t want these same faces and same parties to return,” he said after casting his ballot in Baghdad’s Karradah district.

Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, whose chances for a second term will be determined by the results of the election, urged Iraqis to vote in large numbers. 

“Get out and vote, and change your future,,” said al-Kadhimi, repeating the phrase, “get out” three times after casting his ballot at a school in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, home to foreign embassies and government offices.

Under Iraq’s laws, the winner of Sunday’s vote gets to choose the country’s next prime minister, but it’s unlikely any of the competing coalitions can secure a clear majority. That will require a lengthy process involving backroom negotiations to select a consensus prime minister and agree on a new coalition government. It took eight months of political wrangling to form a government after the 2018 elections.

Groups drawn from Iraq’s majority Shiite Muslims dominate the electoral landscape, with a tight race expected between Iraq’s influential Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, and the Fatah Alliance, led by paramilitary leader Hadi al-Ameri, which came in second in the previous election.

The Fatah Alliance is comprised of parties and affiliated with the Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella group of mostly pro-Iran Shiite militias that rose to prominence during the war against the Sunni extremist Islamic State group. It includes some of the most hard-line Iran-backed factions, such as the Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia. Al-Sadr, a black-turbaned nationalist leader, is also close to Iran, but publicly rejects its political influence.

Earlier Sunday, al-Sadr cast his ballot in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, swarmed by local journalists. He then drove away in a white sedan without commenting. Al-Sadr, a populist who has an immense following among Iraq’s working class Shiites, came out on top in the 2018 elections, winning a majority of seats. 

The election is the first since the fall of Saddam to proceed without a curfew in place, reflecting the significantly improved security situation in the country following the defeat of IS in 2017. Previous votes were marred by fighting and deadly bomb attacks that have plagued the country for decades.

More than 250,000 security personnel across the country were tasked with protecting the vote. Soldiers, police and anti-terrorism forces fanned out and deployed outside polling stations, some of which were ringed by barbed wire. Voters were patted down and searched.

As a security precaution, Iraq closed its airspace and land border crossings and scrambled its air force from Saturday night until early Monday morning. 

In another first, Sunday’s election is taking place under a new election law that divides Iraq into smaller constituencies — another demand of the activists who took part in the 2019 protests — and allows for more independent candidates.

The 2018 elections saw just 44% of eligible voters cast their ballots, a record low, and the results were widely contested. There are concerns of a similar or even lower turnout this time. 

In a tea shop in Karradah, one of the few open, candidate Reem Abdulhadi walked in to ask whether people had cast their vote. 

“I will give my vote to Umm Kalthoum, the singer, she is the only one who deserves it,” the tea vendor quipped, referring to the late Egyptian singer beloved by many in the Arab world. He said he will not take part in the election and didn’t believe in the political process. 

After a few words, Abdulhadi gave the man, who asked to remain anonymous, a card with her name and number in case he changed his mind. He put it in his pocket.

“Thank you, I will keep it as a souvenir,” he said.

At that moment, a low-flying, high-speed military aircraft flew overhead making a screeching noise. “Listen to this. This sound is terror. It reminds me of war, not an election,” he added.

___

Associated Press writer Abdulrahman Zeyad contributed reporting.

Antichrist who fought US offers himself as saviour in elections

An election poster of Moqtada al-Sadr in Sadr City, northern Baghdad
An election poster of Moqtada al-Sadr in Sadr City, northern BaghdadAHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/GETTY

Iraq’s cleric who fought US offers himself as saviour in elections

As the nation votes today, the leader once described as his country’s most dangerous man may be the least bad option

In his office in Baghdad’s Green Zone, the politician Sadiq al-Sulaiti perched on a velvet sofa with crystal-studded cushions and expounded on his favourite subject: how his leader, the Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, was going to save Iraq from corruption, lawlessness and instability.

When the American-led coalition invaded 18 years ago, Sulaiti was a dedicated supporter of the “resistance”, led by Sadr, which fought against the occupiers and later engaged in sectarian warfare that left thousands dead. Since then Iraqis have experienced periods of stability as well as enduring years of internal conflict, including war against the Islamic State group, which controlled a third of the country at one point.

Now, as the Americans, who dominated the country from the Green Zone, prepare to withdraw

Antichrist’s men envision role as broker of next government

Iraqi supporters of Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr raise flags of their "Marching Toward Reform" electoral alliance during a campaign rally in the capital, Baghdad, on May 4, 2018.

Iraqi Sadrists envision role as broker of next government

AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty ImagesOctober 8, 2021

Muqtada al-Sadr’s Sairoon political bloc pledged on Sept. 30, to implement its program for state administration within three years if it wins the post of prime minister in the October 2021 elections. The pledge was made in front of Sadr’s residence in Kufa. The program includes building schools and hospitals, restricting arms to state institutions, ensuring social security, and advancing the agriculture and industry sectors.

The Sadrist movement has been sending to its opponents since Nov. 27 the message that it has the largest popular base and can mobilize its supporters in a demonstration calling for the movement to be tasked with forming a government.

On the external level, Sadr is seemingly seeking to show that his movement is a moderate and active political force.

However, Sadr’s enthusiasm is not devoid of concern and hesitation. And if the Sadrist movement is to be tasked with forming a cabinet, he said he does “not want to sacrifice the reputation of my fathers” — given that he comes from a Shiite religious family.

Speaking to Al-Monitor, Sattar Jabbar, a member of parliament for Sadr’s Sairoon Alliance, justified his alliance’s quest. “Sairoon has been the largest bloc in all cycles, and we will be the largest bloc par excellence in these elections as well. This is what the street tells us. That is why the premiership needs to be a 100% Sadrist, and all necessary measures have been taken to make it a success domestically and abroad,” he said.

Political Leadership and Governance Development Academy head Abdul Rahman al-Jebouri, speaking to Al-Monitor, questioned the Sadrist movement’s ability to run a successful government. He said, “The internal reform that the Sadrist movement is calling for, and the recently announced program that is not up to the aspirations of the bloc’s supporters and members, does not offer the rest of the Iraqis the state of safety, freedoms and prosperity they aspire for.”

He added, “The Sadrists do not have the experience to manage the complex and thorny domestic situation. For many years, they have benefited from the state and have mastered blaming the governments for corruption, although a third of the state employees in charge of managing the institutions are affiliated with them. That is at the local level. Internationally, foreign relations involve the management of mutual interests between Iraq and the world, and the representation of a complex state in which the interests of the East and the West are intertwined and conflicting, let alone the interests of each of the Iraqi components. All of these are not tailored to the taste of the Sadrists.”

Jebouri noted, “We have not seen any Sadrist politician, parliamentarian or executive who excels in foreign relations so far. The movement’s positions are improvised.” He said “all of the above-mentioned reasons would result in a Sadrist government that is internally besieged and isolated from the outside world if they insist on leading it.”

However, Sadrist parliament member Sabah Akili told Al-Monitor there are no obstacles that would prevent the movement from being in charge of forming a cabinet. “The Sadrist movement is focusing on the premiership, considering it the way to reconstruction and ending corruption,” he said.

Commenting on the movement’s tactics, he stated, “We rely on our large popular base, our influence on the Iraqi arena and our relations with our future allies that we are coordinating with.”

Akili added that “the movement’s demand is not unfounded. It has 4 to 5 million supporters. It is a right that any party has the right to claim.”

“The movement worked on this goal long before the elections. Today, he is qualified to have the post of prime minister so as to bring about a radical and comprehensive change,” he said.

Yet things are not that simple, said Abbas Abboud, editor-in-chief of Iraq’s al-Sabah daily. He told Al-Monitor, “The chances of the Sadrist project’s success are subject to calculations. The designation of the prime minister in Iraq does not depend on the size of the parliamentary bloc. Rather, it depends on the alliances after the elections and a consensus between Tehran, Washington and Najaf.”

Commenting on the Sadrist movement’s claim for the post of prime minister, Ihsan al-Shammari, who heads the Iraqi Political Thinking Center, told Al-Monitor, “It is part of an electoral propaganda and messages sent to Shiite forces that they need to take into account the opinion of the movement regarding the figure that will be designated in this post.” Shammari added, “It is also a message to the Sunnis, the Kurds and the outside that the movement is an active force and that it is on the threshold of a new stage.”

“The Sadrist movement senses that there is an undeclared alliance seeking to disregard its opinion when choosing the prime minister,” Shammari said, adding, “The next prime minister will be selected based on a consensus.”

He noted that “the Sadrists are talking about reforms, but this program did not include any timeline or a work plan to do so. It is similar to all previous programs of other forces. This will not succeed unless there is a political will in favor of the next cabinet’s program.”

Ostensibly, the Sadrist movement is flexing its muscles ahead of the legislative electionsin order to make its voice heard, stress its presence and underscore that whatever the results, it will have the final say in the political process.