Sectarian politics have blighted the country, leaving voters disillusioned with their leaders
October 13, 2021 2:36 pm by David Gardner
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