Image Iraq elections empower ex-militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr, once referred to as 'The Most Dangerous Man in Iraq' [Lima Charlie News] [Image: Reuters / Habi Mizban]
Iraq elections empower ex-militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr, once referred to as 'The Most Dangerous Man in Iraq' [Lima Charlie News] [Image: Reuters / Habi Mizban]

Iraq elections empower ex-militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr, once referred to as ‘The Most Dangerous Man in Iraq’

On May 12th, Iraqis headed to the polls for the first time since the fall of ISIS. These parliamentary elections resulted in victory for the party of Muqtada al-Sadr, a Shia cleric hostile to the U.S. and Iran, once referred to as “The Most Dangerous Man in Iraq.” In coming weeks, he is expected to cobble together a coalition with Sunni and Kurdish political parties and upend Iraq’s governance.

Polling stations in the city of Kirkuk are under siege. 

On May 16th, gunmen attacked polling stations across the city, taking employees of the electoral commission hostage while ballot counting in the city was still underway. Initial results showed that the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party was in the lead, with local Arab and Turkmen politicians contesting the results.

The aftermath of the rise and fall of IS looms large over these elections.

Kirkuk’s governance was overturned when Iraqi forces fled the 2014 Islamic State offensive and Kurdish forces moved in. Then when the Islamic State fell in 2017, Kurdish forces abandoned the city in the face of Iraqi government forces and allied Shia militias.

Residents greeting the Iraqi military and Shia militias after Kurdish forces fled the city on October 16, 2017. (Reuters Stringer)

Earlier this week, Mosul held its first spring festival since the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, — a display of normalcy in defiance. Mosul is in rubble from its fall to IS in 2014 and retaking in 2017. The celebration went off without a hitch though — cardboard floats, bands playing patriotic songs, and young girls in miniature wedding dresses paraded through the city, even as armed guards in skull-faced masks followed along for protection.

Mosul is not the only place on the up-and-up, either; global oil prices are up, the Kurdish independence movement has deferred to Bagdad, and, perhaps most importantly, the Islamic State has been driven out of the country. All bode well for Iraqi stability.

Yet in spite of these positive signs, the polls reflect an anti-establishment mood.

The party of the current prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, was knocked down to third place, securing only an expected 39 of the 329 seats in the legislature.

Abadi’s failure to translate economic recovery and military victory into electoral success stems from the lost support of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. As the highest Shiite authority in Iraq, Sistani did not push Shia citizens to vote on Saturday — something he has done consistently in the past. In a sermon last week, Sistani said that he intended to keep an “equal distance” from all the candidates for the May 12 elections.

While Sistani paved the way for Abadi to win the 2014 premiership, his sermon noted that “past electoral experiments were marked by failures, many of those who were elected or appointed to high positions in the government abused their power and took part in spreading corruption and squandering public money.”

And there was a decided lack of enthusiasm for voting this time around, with voter turnout falling a full 17%.

Muqtada al-Sadr (AP 2011)

The current leader and likely victor in the elections remains Muqtada al-Sadr, the former leader of the paramilitary Mahdi Army, once deemed The Most Dangerous Man in Iraq. Al-Sadr has been consistently hostile to the presence of US troops in Iraq, waging a war of words on the US occupation. This led the US to censor the publication of his newspaper in March 2004, which was the spark that lit a wave of violence throughout spring 2004.

By early April, Mahdi Army forces rose up in Sadr City (Named for al-Sadr’s father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr). The US was able to retake Sadr City, and al-Sadr remained relatively quiet during 2005 elections.

In 2007, he went into exile in Iran and declared a ceasefire for the Mahdi Army. However, by spring of 2008 fighting sprang up once again when Mahdi Army forces struck Bagdad’s Green Zone, and continued through the summer, until al-Sadr ordered the Mahdi Army to withdraw in August.

At all times antagonistic to U.S. forces, al-Sadr’s so-called Peace Brigade once issued a statement days after a US announcement to deploy more troops to Iraq, threatening, “We will target the US forces anywhere they are in Iraq. We are not only keen on targeting them, but thirsty for their blood.” The Peace Brigade, the revitalized form of al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, is the militant faction of the Shia Sadrist movement in Iraq.

Al-Sadr returned to Iraq in 2011, and, following the withdrawal of US forces, has gradually rebranded himself as an anti-corruption activist. Although Iraqi voters rebuked Abadi, al-Sadr is on good terms with the PM, and Abadi’s Victory Alliance party is likely to be part of the governing coalition.  

In April 2016, supporters of al-Sadr stormed the Green Zone and occupied the parliament building, demanding that al-Abadi tackle corruption in the country. The photo is from inside the building. (Photo: Haidar Mohammed Ali)

Corruption has been a hot issue during this election, and with good reason: a recent report estimates that $320 billion has been stolen since 2003.  

“Everybody is corrupt, from the top of society to the bottom. Everyone. Including me,” Mishan al-Jabouri, an MP who was part of Iraq’s top parliamentary anti-corruption enforcement agency, said on a nationally televised interview, seconds before admitting to taking a $5 million bribe.

Furthermore, economic performance is only positive relative to chaos. In spite of Iraq’s plans to increase oil production, the industry has taken a hit from the years of conflict.

Deep-rooted corruption persists in the oil industry, disrupting revenue and preventing significant internal growth. Some have also accused Abadi of failing to provide jobs, and, even though he oversaw the take-back of the territory ISIS gained over four years of war, nearly 6 million individuals have been left displaced in the aftermath.

The country is also in desperate need of foreign investment for its reconstruction efforts, as the minister of planning recently estimated that over $88 billion would be needed to rebuild from the wreckage left behind by the Islamic State.

Amidst the disarray, regional powers see opportunity.

Al-Sadr (left) meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, July 30, 2017. (Saudi Press Agency via AP)

The U.S. and Saudi Arabia both view Iran’s presence in Iraqi politics as a risk to regional stability, as well as their respective interests, and don’t want to see the new government ushered in that direction.

Al-Sadr visited Saudi Arabia in July 2017 to meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. After the visit his webpage played up the fact that he discussed Saudi economic aid with the prince. The gulf monarchies made a bequest to Iraq in early 2018, around $10.5 billion.

While courting the Gulf states, al-Sadr’s relations with Iran, which was the most significant backer of his Mahdi Army during the Iraq War, have broken down entirely. The point of departure has been the war in Syria; while Iran is the region’s chief supporter of the Government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, al-Sadr has led Shia opposition to Assad.

The 2014 IS invasion of Iraq did immeasurable material and social damage to Iraq. This election marks a break with Iran, especially because pro-Iranian Shia parties seem to have been trounced at the ballot box.

In the coming weeks, and perhaps months, al-Sadr will be the principle power broker in negotiations to form a coalition government. Meanwhile regional players are busy — Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps external operations head, Gen. Qassem Soleimani and the US Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, Brett McGurk, are both in Bagdad this week meeting with politicians. The Saudis are embarking on a program of opening consulates across Iraqi cities, the first of which has almost finished construction in Basra, the city where al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army made its last stand in 2008.

[Title Image: Celebrating supporters of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in Tahrir Square, Baghdad, Iraq. Reuters /Hadi Mizban]

Diego Lynch, Lima Charlie News

Lima Charlie provides global news, insight & analysis by military veterans and service members Worldwide.

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