Nationalist Sadr’s Iraq election wins surprises regional rivals

Shia populist cleric and Iraqi nationalist Moqtada al Sadr won the May 12 Iraqi elections to the surprise of Iran, Turkey, the United States and many Iraq experts. Sadr is against Israel, the United States and Iran, and also opposes the presence of Turkish troops on Iraqi territory. Now he is the kingmaker of Iraq’s elections, winning 54 out of 329 seats in the Iraqi parliament.

Washington was hoping Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al Abadi would win as a result of his defeat of Islamic State (ISIS), while Iran backed the Conquest alliance headed by the leader of the paramilitary Badr organisation, Hadi Al Ameri. But Abadi was not able to win the confidence of the majority of Iraqis, although he did win in the Sunni Arab province of Mosul, which would limit Turkish influence in the future.

“The U.S. will view this result as a middling outcome: not the worst result of Conquest coming out on top, nor the best result of a resounding Nasr [Abadi list] endorsement,” Michael Knights, a Middle East analyst at the Washington Institute told Ahval.

“We are very well aware of Moqtada al-Sadr and his background and his positions now, yes,” U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert told reporters on Tuesday.

For Turkey, any win by majority Sunni Arab or Turkmen lists would be a win, but Sunni Arab majority parties did not do well, including the Turkmen in Kirkuk.

“Turkey has no role. Sunni political parties that were backed by Turkey were destroyed after ISIS. It’s difficult for them to play any big role in Iraqi politics for the next coming four years,” Dr. Nahro Zagros, the vice president of Soran University told Ahval.

As an example, he gave the Turkish-backed Iyad Alawi’s Iraqiya list that won the majority of the seats in the March 2010 elections, but still failed to form a government due to Iranian interference. After all, in Iraq, governments are formed not by the party winning the most seats, but by largest party coalition.

“In the past elections, Alawi won most of the votes, but he was blocked from forming the government because of Iranian interference,” Zagros said.

Now U.S. coalition envoy Brett McGurk and General Qasim Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, are both in Iraq to influence the coalition formation.

“Soleimani has more sympathisers than Brett McGurk and understands Iraq better. I don’t know if the Americans will be more powerful to influence the Iraqis, Iran is still more powerful than the U.S. unfortunately,” Zagros said.

Washington was hoping Abadi would win the elections again to counter Iranian influence in Iraq. Kurdish officials said this was one of the main reasons Abadi got U.S. support when he forcefully took back disputed territories from the Kurds, including oil-rich Kirkuk in October last year, a month after the Iraqi Kurds’ independence referendum.

Many analysts said Abadi’s role in unifying Iraq would rally Iraqi’s behind him.

“The U.S. seemed confident Abadi would win since he literally saved Iraq from ISIS and kept Iraq intact after the Kurdish independence referendum," David M. Witty, an adjunct professor at Norwich University told Ahval.

However, there was a very low turnout with fewer than 45 percent casting their ballots, with Iraqis being fed up with failed election promises of services, more jobs and combating corruption of politicians. Due to the low turnout and discontent, Sadr and the Iranian-backed list won more seats than Abadi.

"I think Sadr’s victory has taken everyone by surprise but, big picture, foreign governments will have to work with whatever government is formed in Baghdad and it will likely be another national unity one which means Washington, Tehran and Ankara will have friendly parties included within it," said Iraq expert Joel Wing.

Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Masoud Barzani called and congratulated Sadr on his victory, he said, adding that there was talk that Sadr was thinking of including the Kurdish leader’s party in the core of his new coalition. “That would make Turkey happy,” he said.

But Wing said that Baghdad would not act against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has been fighting Turkey for more than 30 years and has its headquarters in the remote Qandil Mountains of northeastern Iraq.

“Baghdad is not going to do anything about the PKK and neither is the KRG. They don't have any influence in the Qandil region where the PKK is located. All they can do is make empty statements and try to appease Ankara with them,” he said.

According Diliman Abdulkader, Director of the Kurdistan Project at Endowment for Middle East Truth, Sadr’s win goes against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s long-term strategy in Iraq.

“If Turkey respects sovereign Iraqi territory, relations will continue, if not then it’ll deteriorate. But Erdoğan is keen on targeting the PKK since his own elections are also nearing,” Abdulkader said. “Under Sadr, Turkey will be forced to pack up and leave. He wants Iran and Turkey out.”

According to Ceng Sagnic, a researcher at Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Centre for Middle Eastern Studies, the absolute winner of the Iraqi elections is Iran. “The two leading blocs, Sadrists and Hadi Al-Ameri's Fateh are expected to seek common ground with Tehran rather than the U.S., and the sole U.S. ally Haider Al-Abadi will need to make critical concessions if he is ever involved in the new government. Therefore the post-ISIS era in Iraq has begun with serious challenges for the U.S., especially as its natural allies, the Kurds, have lost almost everything they have except a relatively weak government in Erbil and have less to offer for the U.S. project,” she said.

However, Sadr himself tweeted that he would be willing to ally with non-Iranian backed factions, including Abadi’s list, Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), and other lists, which would mean he could contain Iranian influence, and Abadi could still possibly become the prime minister.

“I think the Iran-aligned groups got just what I expected. The difference was that Sadr's populist push got seats I thought would go to Abadi. But this is bad for Iran, since instead of Badr being a junior partner in an Abadi government, now Sadr will be the power behind an Abadi government,” political risk analyst Kirk H. Sowell told Ahval. “Sadr is very likely to elect Abadi,” he said.

“I think we going to see a very complicated situation in Iraq, the next four years,” Zagros said. “If Sadr will be in the opposition, you can expect a lot of protests, since he is the most powerful to mobilize the people. On the other hand, if he forms the government, one of the biggest military actors in Iraq, the (Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Units) will oppose his rule. So, it’s either way going to be more complicated and complex,” he said.