25 May 2018
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Are Iraq's Communists on the rise again? Wednesday, 23 May 2018 22:26

It can only be regarded as a remarkable comeback. Communists, after decades in Iraq’s political wilderness, have formed an unexpected alliance with populist Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr, who swept to victory in the country’s parliamentary elections.

The electoral commission announced that the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) had attained just two seats in parliament. But, crucially, their coalition with Mr Al Sadr's Marching Towards Reform bloc (Sairoun) may give them a voice in the next government.

Forty-four year old Sadr and his coalition partners were able to capitalise on public resentment over the current administration’s failure to improve basic services, fight sectarianism and sideline foreign interference.

They won a total of 54 seats in the 329-seat parliament and, for all of their differences, are united on the positions of non-interference in Iraq’s internal affairs, social justice and the battle against corruption.

"The Communists echo the widely held rejection of the governing system of the past 15 years and stand for a reformist, anti-corruption, anti-apportionment platform,” Fanar Haddad, senior research fellow at Singapore University, said.

“Of course, these are positions, not policies, and it is unclear how these positions can be realised in an actual reform agenda,” Mr Haddad told The National.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the influence of Communists diminished in the region. Many Iraqis believed the party was driven more by ideologies that were attractive in theory but were ultimately far from reality.

At their peak in the 1940s under the command of Yusuf Salman Yusuf, also known as Comrade Fahad, the ICP’s influence increased in the country.

But the anti-Communist crackdown by the police, which led to the 1958 revolution that overthrew the monarchy, meant the party had to work discreetly.

At the time, the Iraqi state at the time was shaken by popular uprisings against the imposition of the British mandate.

Since its establishment in 1934, the ICP played a key role in supporting the revolutions by vowing to combat colonialism but its aspirations were short lived by the rise of the Baath Party in the early 1970s.

It was only after the US-led invasion in 2003 that toppled former dictator Saddam Hussein that the ICP was able to re-emerge in Iraqi politics.

Unexpected alliances

Reports circulated that secular lawmakers refused to join forces with the Sadrists as they found difficulties in finding common ground, some even said it was near impossible for religious and secular groups to align.

But the ICP and Sadrists were able to find common ground in social justice and populist protests against government austerity. The Communists realised it had to accept that only a popular leader could bring radical political changes to the country.

Analysts say the ICP’s decision to align with the cleric was decision based on pragmatic considerations.

“They found that they had not been able to have any impact institutionally in Iraq’s political system, so they found common ground with Mr Al Sadr who has been advocating for the same things as them,” Renad Mansour, senior research fellow at Chatham House said.

Mr Al Sadr, known for leading the Mehdi army, an armed militia group which led an insurgency against US troops, has reinvented himself as a populist preacher who has held a firm position against foreign interventions in Iraq.

While he is unlikely to become prime minister, he will, however, command a significant number of seats and has already begun informal talks about government formation.

Raad Fahmi, the ICP's secretary general, said there had been suspicions and apprehensions from some of its members about joining forces with Mr Al Sadr.

“Actions speak louder than words. He’s not the same Moqtada Al Sadr,” Mr Fahmi said.

Mr Al Sadr’s Mehdi army was declared by the Pentagon in 2007 as the group that replaced Al Qaeda in Iraq and the most dangerous “accelerant of potentially self-sustaining sectarian violence”.

The army was accused of targeting Sunnis in Baghdad and for carrying out assignations around the country. They also clashed violently with Iranian-backed Badr organisation, which controls Iraq’s interior ministry and is led by Hadi Al Ameri.

Mr Al Sadr fled to Iran later in 2007 to become an Ayatollah at a Shiite religious centre in the central Iranian city of Qom.

Upon his return to Iraq, he managed to mobilize a support base that ended with mass protests in Baghdad. They demanded better public services and transparency in government.

There were fears that it would be difficult for non-Sadrists to avoid being swamped by his power, assets and organisational abilities.

“It is more likely that the lion’s share of Sairoun’s electoral gains are from the Sadrist component. In other words, Sairoun needs the Sadrists a lot more than the other way around,” Mr Haddad said.

Although the once-forgotten Communists may have little influence over the next Iraqi government’s policies, Mr Al Sadr’s March Towards Reform bloc has once again brought them back into the spotlight.

Source: The National

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The United States has contacted members of a political bloc headed by former foe Moqtada al-Sadr after his parliamentary election victory put the Shi’ite cleric in a strong position to influence the formation of a new government, a top aide said.

Sadr’s surprise win puts Washington in an awkward position. His Mehdi Army militia staged violent uprisings against U.S. troops after Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003.

If Sadr has a strong say in picking a new prime minister, the United States may have to work with him to safeguard its interests in Iraq, one of its most important Arab allies, which also has close ties to Iran.

Dhiaa al-Asadi, a top Sadr aide, said there had been no direct talks with the Americans but intermediaries had been used to open channels with members of his Sairoon alliance.

“They asked what the position of the Sadrist movement will be when they come to power. Are they going to reinvent or invoke the Mahdi Army or reemploy them? Are they going to attack American forces in Iraq,” he told Reuters.

“There’s no return to square one. We are not intending on having any military force other than the official military force, police forces and security forces.”

The United States is believed to have some 7,000 troops in Iraq now, though the Pentagon has only acknowledged 5,200 troops. They are mostly training and advising Iraqi forces.

Washington and Sadr, an Iraqi nationalist, are both opposed to Iran’s deep influence in Iraq, where it arms, trains and funds Shi’ite militias and nurtures close ties with many politicians.

 

Sadr made his surprise comeback by tapping popular resentment toward Iran and what some voters say is a corrupt political elite in Baghdad that it backs.

IRAN UNDER U.S. PRESSURE

The United States has threatened “the strongest sanctions in history” against Iran unless it makes sweeping changes, including dropping its nuclear program and pulling out of the Syrian civil war.

That will likely prompt Tehran to defend its interests fiercely in Iraq, where it vies with Washington for influence.

Sairoon extended an invitation to the Iranian ambassador in Baghdad to attend a meeting of senior diplomats last week. The envoy apologized and said he could not make it, said Asadi.

Sadr has been meeting the leaders of several blocs and setting conditions on his support for candidates for prime minister. He says he wants someone who rejects sectarianism, foreign interference and corruption in Iraq.

 

Sadr will not become premier as he did not run in the election.

His attempts to shape any future government could be undermined by Iran, which has skillfully manipulated Iraqi politics in its favor in the past.

Just days after election results were announced, Qassem Soleimani, head of the foreign operations branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, arrived in Baghdad to meet politicians.

“Soleimani came to weaken the blocs. He is working to break down the alliances,” said an adviser to Iraq’s government.

An Iraqi former senior official said Sadr would try to outfox Iran, but added that Tehran would not tolerate any threats to Shi’ite allies who have sidelined Sadr for years.

“There are limits on how far he can go. At the end they (the Iranians) can control him. They give him a lot of room to maneuver... But eventually, when he challenges the Shi’ites and their interests, I think they will be very tough. They (the Iranians) have very many tools to undermine him.”

Sadr’s bloc has not ruled out forming a coalition with the bloc headed by Iran’s strongest ally, paramilitary leader Hadi al-Amiri, as long as he abandons what Asadi says are sectarian policies and becomes an Iraqi nationalist.

“We did not have an official meeting with them (the Iranians). Sometimes we receive some calls that are related to what’s going on. But this cannot be considered a meeting or a discussion over any issue,” said Asadi.

The election dealt a blow to incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, whose Victory Alliance came in third. But Western diplomats and analysts say Abadi, a British-educated engineer, still has cards to play.

He appears to be emerging as a compromise candidate palatable to all sides because he has managed the competing interests of the United States and Iran - inadvertent allies in the war against Islamic State - during his term in office.

“As of yet, no one has yet emerged as an alternative, not in a serious way,” said Ali al-Mawlawi, head of research at Baghdad-based Al-Bayan think-tank.

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s Muqtada al-Sadr, the maverick Shiite cleric whose political coalition beat out Iran’s favored candidates to come in first in national elections, says he wants to form a government that puts Iraqis first.

The electoral commission announced early Saturday that the militant-turned-populist preacher, who has long spoken out against both Iranian and U.S. influence in Iraq, had defeated his establishment rivals.

Al-Sadr — who is remembered for leading an insurgency against U.S. forces after the 2003 invasion — did not run for a seat himself and is unlikely to become prime minister, but will command a significant number of seats and has already begun informal talks about government formation.

Salah al-Obeidi, a spokesman for al-Sadr’s Sa’eroun political bloc, told The Associated Press that Iraq’s sovereignty was going to be the new government’s “guiding principle.”

“We warn any other country that wants to involve itself in Iraqi politics not to cross the Iraqi people,” he said.

However, even as al-Sadr is in position to nominate a prime minister and set the political agenda for the next four years, he will find his choices limited by Iran.

The Middle East’s pre-eminent Shiite power has a direct line with some of Iraq’s most powerful politicians, and it is trying to rally them as a bloc to undercut al-Sadr.

Al-Sadr’s rise threatens Iran’s claim to speak on behalf of Iraq’s Shiite majority, a precedent that could fuel independent Shiite movements elsewhere. Also at stake are top ministerial posts — political appointments that are a source of patronage and police and military power.

Al-Sadr himself has kept a relatively low public profile. But in a public relations move that appeared to be directed at Iran, he appeared on Thursday with rival cleric Ammar al-Hakim, who has drifted away from Iran’s orbit in recent years, to say the two men share similar visions for the next government.

Tehran has dispatched its top regional military commander, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, to pull together a coalition to counterbalance al-Sadr, according to an Iraqi Shiite militia commander who is familiar with the meetings.

“Iran won’t accept the creation of a Shiite bloc that is a threat to its interests. It’s a red line,” said the commander, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions.

Al-Sadr’s relationship with Iran is a complicated one. Though he has maintained close ties with Iran’s political and religious leadership, in recent years he has denounced the flow of Iranian munitions to Shiite militias in Iraq, all the while maintaining his own so-called Peace Brigades in the holy city of Samarra, north of Baghdad.

Al-Sadr’s former Mehdi Army militia, which spearheaded an insurgency against the U.S., clashed violently with the Iran-backed Badr Organization last decade.

The militias plugged the gaps left by Iraq’s army as soldiers deserted their posts in the face of the Islamic State group’s lightning campaign in the summer of 2014. With direction from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, they turned the tide against the initial advance. In the years that followed, the militias — coordinating with U.S.-backed Iraqi ground forces — slowly pushed IS fighters back. Iraq declared victory over the group last year.

Al-Sadr has said he wants the militias absorbed into the national security forces, a move Iran would find difficult to accept.

Iran is also rankled by al-Sadr’s recent overtures to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which are locked in proxy wars with Tehran in Syria and Yemen. Al-Sadr met with the crown princes of Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi in August, leading Iran’s hard-line Keyhan newspaper to accuse al-Sadr of “selling himself” to the house of Saud.

It is unlikely al-Sadr can pull together a governing coalition without Iran-aligned political groups, which have the votes to form their own alliance that could challenge al-Sadr’s right to name a prime minister.

An electoral alliance of the militias called Fatah, headed by Hadi al-Amiri, the commander of the Badr Organization, won just seven seats fewer than al-Sadr’s bloc. Sa’eroun won 54 seats in Iraq’s 329-seat national assembly, a far cry from the 165 required to claim a majority.

The militias control the powerful Interior Ministry in the outgoing government and will expect a similar position of influence in the new one.

Al-Sadr seems inclined to woo incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who is seen as a centrist when it comes to Iranian and U.S. interests, and who appears to be wavering between al-Sadr and al-Amiri.

But Tehran still holds considerable sway with al-Abadi’s al-Nasr bloc, which includes several Iran-aligned figures, including one newly minted deputy who has come under U.S. sanctions for allegedly financing Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.

Iran’s political allies in Iraq will try to pressure those figures into deserting al-Abadi and collapsing an al-Sadr alliance if the formulation is not to Tehran’s liking, said a Western diplomat who has been speaking to the sides involved. The diplomat spoke on the condition of anonymity because of media regulations.

That gives Iran — and al-Abadi — leverage over al-Sadr to moderate his positions on the militias and Iran.

Hanging above the talks is the implied threat by all sides to mobilize their followers — and militias — if they feel they are being shortchanged. The collective effect could be to push al-Sadr’s bloc toward a broader governing coalition that would dilute his reform agenda.

His top showing at the ballot box means the next prime minister will have to introduce a civil service law that al-Sadr has championed as an antidote to Iraq’s endemic corruption, said Kirk Sowell, the publisher of Inside Iraqi Politics, a political and security newsletter. But that doesn’t mean the Cabinet or parliament will sign off on it.

“There’s not going to be a functioning majority,” said Sowell. “It’ll be a hodge-podge, coalition government, and it’s not going to be any more stable than the last one.”

Source: PBS

BAGHDAD — Iraqis are still haunted by memories of black-clad death squads roaming Baghdad neighborhoods a decade ago, cleansing them of Sunnis as the country was convulsed by sectarian violence.

Many of the mass killings in the capital were done in the name of Moktada al-Sadr, a cleric best remembered by Americans for fiery sermons declaring it a holy duty among his Shiite faithful to attack United States forces.

The militia he led was armed with Iranian-supplied weapons, and Mr. Sadr cultivated a strong alliance with leaders in Tehran, who were eager to supplant the American presence in Iraq and play the dominant role in shaping the country’s future.

Now, the man once demonized by the United States as one of the greatest threats to peace and stability in Iraq has come out as the surprise winner of this month’s tight elections, after a startling reinvention into a populist, anticorruption campaigner whose “Iraq First” message appealed to voters across sectarian divides.

 The results have Washington — and Tehran — on edge, as officials in both countries seek to influence what is expected to be a complex and drawn-out battle behind the scenes to build a coalition government. Mr. Sadr’s bloc won 54 seats — the most of any group, but still far short of a majority in Iraq’s 329-seat Parliament.

Even before final results were announced early Saturday, Mr. Sadr — who did not run as a candidate and has ruled himself out as prime minister — had made clear whom he considers natural political allies. At the top of his list is Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, the moderate Shiite leader who has been America’s partner in the fight against the Islamic State and whose political bloc finished third in the vote.

Pointedly absent from Mr. Sadr’s list of potential partners: pro-Iranian blocs, as he has insistently distanced himself from his former patrons in Iran, whose meddling he has come to see as a destabilizing force in Iraq’s politics.

While Mr. Sadr has all the momentum going into negotiations over the governing coalition, there is no guarantee his bloc will be in power. And it is too early to tell what the election may mean for Iraqi stability or American national security goals.

But the upset has clearly weakened the sectarian foundation of Iraq’s political system — and helped transform Mr. Sadr’s image from the paragon of a militant Shiite into an unexpected symbol of reform and Iraqi nationalism.

As the head of the Sairoon Alliance for Reform, Mr. Sadr presides over an unlikely alliance that pairs his pious, largely working-class Shiite base with Sunni business leaders, liberals and Iraqis looking for relief from the country’s long-simmering economic crisis.

For those joining the alliance, it was important to be convinced that Mr. Sadr’s shift from Shiite firebrand to Iraqi patriot was sincere, and likely to last.

Late last year, the cleric began reaching out to groups outside his base with an offer to form a new political movement, and the country’s embattled leftists and secularists — once his staunch enemies — faced a moment of reckoning.

They remembered how a rogue Shariah court he had established passed sentences on fellow Shiites deemed too submissive toward the American occupation of Iraq. And they recalled the countless Iraqis killed in battles between the country’s security forces and Mr. Sadr’s militia. 

But a ragtag group of communists, social democrats and anarchists have come to embrace Mr. Sadr as a symbol of the reform they have championed for years — an image that the cleric has burnished, seeing it as the best path to political power.

“Let me be honest: We had a lot of apprehensions, a lot of suspicions,” said Raad Fahmi, a leader of Iraq’s Communist Party, which is part of Mr. Sadr’s alliance. “But actions speak louder than words. He’s not the same Moktada al-Sadr.”

ISIS Changes Everything

The change in Mr. Sadr was prompted by the political and security crisis set off by the Islamic State’s takeover of large parts of northern and western Iraq in 2014, according to Sheikh Saleh al-Obeidi, Mr. Sadr’s spokesman. The ensuing violence led to an overwhelming shift in the public mood: a feeling that sectarianism was at the root of much of the country’s suffering.

Mr. Sadr, the scion of an eminent clerical family, has portrayed his changed political philosophy in starkly pragmatic terms.

In his only extensive interview before the elections, given to his own television channel, Mr. Sadr put forth a manifesto largely adopted from his new secularist allies. He said his goals were to put professionals — not partisan loyalists — into positions of power as a way to build national institutions that serve the people instead of political insiders.

“We have tried the Islamists and they failed terribly,” Mr. Sadr said, a rebuke that his aides said included his own movement. “So let us try another way in which the independent technocrat or independent Islamist or secular technocrat, whoever is best for the job, takes over a ministry and makes it productive. We should try that.”

Whether Mr. Sadr can succeed with his reform agenda is an open question, said Joost Hiltermann, the director of the International Crisis Group’s Middle East program, as building a majority coalition will mean partnering with some of the established faces that voters expressed dissatisfaction with at the polls. Those other politicians “have much to lose from an effort to curb corruption,” Mr. Hiltermann said.

Source: The New York Times

 

 


 

Regardless of how one chooses to read the outcome of last Saturday’s elections in Iraq, one thing is for sure: Iraqi voters have rejected the status quo and sought fresh political players to take over. Outgoing prime minister Haider Al Abadi, whose Victory List wooed disenchanted Sunni voters as well as Shiites, lost most of his base to two opposing coalitions: An anti-Iran, anti-United States alliance of Islamists, secularists and Communists, led by nationalist Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr, and a pro-Iran list led by the head of the controversial Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), Hadi Al Ameri. The latter spearheaded the fight against Daesh, but his militias were accused of carrying out atrocities against Sunnis in Nineveh and Salahuddin provinces.

Despite low voter turnout and allegations of rigging, especially in the Kurdish provinces, those voting for Al Sadr’s Revolutionaries for Reform Alliance (Al Sairoon) were shunning ethno-sectarian politics and rejecting foreign meddling in Iraqi affairs. It was stunning that his euphoric supporters were calling for the ousting of Iran right in the heart of Baghdad the day after the elections.

Al Sadr, 44, is an enigmatic and maverick leader followed by millions, especially in the impoverished neighbourhoods of Baghdad. His now-disbanded militia had fought the US military following the 2003 invasion. At one point, he had taken refuge in Iran, but returned to defy the divisive politics of pro-Tehran, disgraced former prime minister Nouri Al Maliki. He was among the first leaders to denounce the quota system that had deepened sectarian tensions and sidelined Sunnis, Kurds and minorities. Coming from a revered religious family that had opposed oppression during the Saddam Hussain era, he is now seen as an Iraqi and Arab nationalist who rejects Iranian and US meddling in Iraqi affairs. He had supported Al Maliki’s successor, Al Abadi, who also rejected identity politics, vowed to fight rampant corruption and waged war against Daesh.

Al Sadr’s victory is important. His list came first in Baghdad, which has maximum seats, and at least eight other provinces. Although he says he is not interested in a political position, he is now seen as kingmaker — the person who will decide who will become Iraq’s next prime minister. While he said he will support Al Abadi for a second term, the latter’s poor performance will become a factor. As things stand now, not one list can form a government on its own. The coming weeks will witness intense negotiations and horse trading to form blocs and alliances that can muster enough support on the floor of the parliament and win a confidence vote.

Al Sadr may still back Al Abadi and he is likely to have the support of the Al Hikma movement as well, led by Ammar Al Hakim, a moderate Shiite leader. The three will need the support of Sunni and Kurdish alliances and individuals. If they succeed, then Iraqis will be on the verge of a major departure from the divisive political system installed by the Americans.

But Iran still has allies who will work to derail the emerging political power. Al Ameri, who came in second, has the support of hardline Shiite voters in most southern provinces. Already he is said to be negotiating with Al Maliki and Al Abadi, under the aegis of Iran’s strongman General Qassem Sulaimani, to form a united bloc in parliament. Al Abadi will be risking his legacy if he decides to join hands with Al Ameri and Al Maliki.

Emerging centrist bloc

One major broker in all this will be the head of the Shiite religious (marja) institution in Najaf; Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani. His influence over Iraqi Shiites is considerable and he is likely to back the emerging centrist bloc being set up by Al Sadr and his allies. He had asked voters not to elect those who were tried before and failed.

Al Sadr’s success underlines a new reality in Iraq: That a growing number of Iraqis are tired of sectarian confrontations and want stability, security and economic recovery. Al Maliki’s track record is dismal. Under his watch, Daesh took over 40 per cent of Iraq and was few kilometres from Baghdad. His role in any bloc will be toxic at best. Al Ameri will continue to rely on Iran’s support and he may emerge as the head of the opposition if he fails to form a government.

The US role remains crucial as well. The animosity between Al Sadr and Washington should not overshadow his bloc’s determination to stamp out sectarian divides and set the country on the path of reconstruction. Last year, he had reached out to Saudi Arabia, as did Al Abadi, and both remain Iraq’s best hope at this juncture.

But Iraq remains part of a power struggle between Iran and the US. The latest US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal has heightened regional tensions. What most Iraqis hope for is that their country, emerging from a brutal war against Daesh, will not be sucked into the vortex of regional strife.

Source: Gulf News

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi met with Moqtada al-Sadr on Saturday, less than 24 hours after the Shi’ite cleric’s bloc was declared winner of Iraq’s parliamentary election, the clearest sign yet they could work together to form a coalition.

“During our meeting, we agreed to work together and with other parties to expedite the process of forming a new Iraqi government,” Abadi said at a joint press conference.

“It will be a strong government, capable of providing to its citizens services, security and economic prosperity.”

 Sadr, a long-time adversary of the United States who also opposes Iranian influence in Iraq, cannot become prime minister because he did not run in the election.
 

However, his bloc’s victory puts him in a position to have a strong say in negotiations. His Sairoon electoral list captured 54 parliamentary seats, 12 more than Abadi’s.

“Our door is open to anyone as long as they want to build the nation, and that it be an Iraqi decision,” Sadr said.

A bloc led by Hadi al-Amiri, one of the most powerful figures in Iraq, came in second. Amiri, who leads an umbrella of paramilitary groups, has maintained close ties with Iran for decades.

Before the election, Tehran publicly stated it would not allow Sadr’s bloc to govern close ally Iraq, with which it shares a border. Iran has influenced the choice for prime minister in the past.

Winning the largest number of seats does not automatically guarantee that Sadr will be able to hand-pick a prime minister.

Parties will have to align themselves to try and form a bloc large enough for the parliamentary majority necessary to nominate a candidate. The government should be formed within 90 days of the official results, but negotiations are expected to drag on for months.

The election dealt a blow to Abadi, but he could still emerge as a compromise candidate palatable to all sides because he has managed the competing interests of the United States and Iran - unwitting allies in the war against Islamic State - during his term in office.

In recent days, Sadr also met with Ammar al-Hakim, whose Hikma Movement trailed in seventh place, as well as with ambassadors from Iraq’s neighboring countries including Saudi Arabia, Tehran’s main rival in the Middle East.

 Source:Reuters

WASHINGTON — Fourteen years after Muqtada al-Sadr’s militias fought American troops, the United States is preparing to work hand in hand with the charismatic Shiite cleric and his movement, hoping to find common cause in curtailing Iran’s influence in the wake of an upset Iraqi election.

Like many Iraqis, Washington was caught off guard by the election, in which a coalition organized by al-Sadr took the largest share of the parliamentary vote. Although al-Sadr, who didn’t run himself, won’t become prime minister, his movement will have an outsize role in building the next government and determining the course of Iraq’s future.

Can the U.S. really set aside the past and embrace a cleric whose Mahdi Army killed U.S. and Iraqi troops and was accused of kidnapping, torturing and killing Sunni Iraqis? The tentative answer is yes.

U.S. officials involved in Iraq policy said President Donald Trump’s administration was cautiously optimistic that al-Sadr, having evolved over the years into a populist, corruption-fighting leader, could herald the formation of a broad-based and inclusive government that tolerates a continuing American presence in the country.

Al-Sadr has turned away from his previous alignment with Iran. U.S. officials believe that will make it more difficult for Tehran to install an Iran-friendly government in Baghdad. The officials weren’t authorized to discuss Iraq’s election publicly and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, said recent public messages from al-Sadr bode positively for U.S. interests — such as finishing off the Islamic State group, a common enemy of the U.S. and al-Sadr’s militia. In addition to vowing to respect Iraq’s constitution, al-Sadr has emphasized Iraqi sovereignty and the need for a balanced foreign policy that limits Iran’s influence, as well as his ability to work with secularists and liberals such as Iraq’s communist party.

“If he practices what he says — if a former adversary embraces your objectives — one should respond to that, but be cautious until you see changes on the ground,” Khalilzad said. “If he’s willing to engage, we should be prepared to engage as well.”

Publicly, the Trump administration has said little about the success of al-Sadr’s slate of candidates, in part because the vote count hasn’t been finalized and a new coalition government has yet to be formed. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said she didn’t want “to get ahead of the process and presume how things are going to look in the end.”

“The overarching theme right now is congratulations to Iraq for holding democratic and free elections,” Nauert said.

Yet in its limited comments, the State Department has also dropped buzzwords that signal tacit acceptance of al-Sadr and his agenda, voicing U.S. support for a “nationalist government” that is “sovereign” and leaves “sectarian divisions behind.”

In many ways, al-Sadr’s surprising political climb mirrors that of Trump and other nationalist figures in Europe, Asia and the Arab world who have tapped into the populist impulses coursing through world politics. In fact, even before this week’s vote, some Iraqis had drawn their own comparisons between al-Sadr and Trump.

With an extraordinary ability to work the media and attract millions to his fiery rallies, al-Sadr railed against corruption and threats from outside the country’s borders. He capitalized on his outsider status and led his coalition to electoral success in a low-turnout election, securing support beyond his traditional Shiite base by allying with secularists and Iraq’s communist party.

It was that populist message that won over Abu Ali Sweirawi, 50, who backed al-Sadr’s candidates in the election. He blamed Iraq’s current government for failing to provide basic services like health care, employment, trash collection and affordable education.

“If it were not for Sadr, we would not finish off these corrupt politicians,” he said, adding that al-Sadr would “form a new government, and God willing, we will see good results.”

For al-Sadr, it’s a striking about-face from 2003, when he led a bloody uprising against American and coalition forces in Iraq. Yet behind the scenes, the U.S. has been in quiet contact with al-Sadr and his camp since at least 2007, several current and former U.S. officials said.

With an extraordinary ability to work the media and attract millions to his fiery rallies, al-Sadr railed against corruption and threats from outside the country’s borders. He capitalized on his outsider status and led his coalition to electoral success in a low-turnout election, securing support beyond his traditional Shiite base by allying with secularists and Iraq’s communist party.

It was that populist message that won over Abu Ali Sweirawi, 50, who backed al-Sadr’s candidates in the election. He blamed Iraq’s current government for failing to provide basic services like health care, employment, trash collection and affordable education.

“If it were not for Sadr, we would not finish off these corrupt politicians,” he said, adding that al-Sadr would “form a new government, and God willing, we will see good results.”

For al-Sadr, it’s a striking about-face from 2003, when he led a bloody uprising against American and coalition forces in Iraq. Yet behind the scenes, the U.S. has been in quiet contact with al-Sadr and his camp since at least 2007, several current and former U.S. officials said.

Source: The Washington Post

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a long-time adversary of the United States, has all but won Iraq’s parliamentary election, the electoral commission said, in a surprise turn of fortune for the Shi’ite leader.

In the first election since Islamic State was defeated in the country, Iran-backed Shi’ite militia chief Hadi al-Amiri’s bloc was in second place, while Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, once seen as the front-runner, trailed in third.

The preliminary results were based on a count of more than 91 percent of the votes cast in 16 of Iraq’s 18 provinces.

Sadr’s bloc did not run in the remaining two provinces, Kurdish Dohuk and the ethnically-mixed oil province of Kirkuk. The results there, which may be delayed due to tensions between local parties, will not affect Sadr’s standing.

Unlike Abadi, a rare ally of both the United States and Iran, Sadr is an opponent of both countries, which have wielded influence in Iraq since a U.S.-led invasion toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003 and thrust the Shi’ite majority into power.

Sadr has led two uprisings against U.S. forces in Iraq and is one of the few Shi’ite leaders to distance himself from Iran.

Despite the election setback, Abadi might still be granted a second term in office by parliament and on Monday he called on all political blocs to respect the results and suggested he was willing to work with Sadr to form a government.

“We are ready to work and cooperate in forming the strongest government for Iraq, free of corruption,” Abadi said in a live televised address. Corruption has been at the top of Sadr’s agenda for several years.

Projecting himself as an Iraqi nationalist, Sadr has a zealous following among the young, poor and dispossessed, but he had been sidelined by influential Iran-backed figures.

He cannot become prime minister as he did not run in the election, though his apparent victory puts him in a position to pick someone for the job.

But even then, his bloc might not necessarily form the next government. Whoever wins the most seats must negotiate a coalition government in order to have a majority in parliament. The government should be formed within 90 days of the official results.

Saturday’s election is the first since the defeat of Islamic State last year. The group overran a third of Iraq in 2014.

Turnout was 44.52 percent with 92 percent of votes counted, the Independent High Electoral Commission said, the lowest participation rate in Iraq’s post-Saddam history. Full results are due to be officially announced later on Monday.

 

ELECTION CALCULUS

Sadr and Amiri both came in first in four of the 10 provinces where votes were counted, but the cleric’s bloc won significantly more votes in the capital, Baghdad, which has the highest number of seats.

A document provided to Reuters by a candidate in Baghdad that was also circulating among journalists and analysts showed results from all 18 provinces.

Reuters could not independently verify the document’s authenticity but the results in it for the 16 announced provinces were in line with those announced by the commission.

Reuters calculations based on the document showed Sadr had won the nationwide popular vote with over 1.3 million votes and gained around 54 of parliament’s 329 seats.

He was followed by Amiri with more than 1.2 million votes, translating into around 47 seats, and Abadi with more than 1 million votes and about 42 seats. Former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a close ally of Iran like Amiri, came in fourth with around 25 seats.

The remaining uncounted ballots, mostly from Iraqis abroad, the security services, and internally displaced people voting in camps and elsewhere, might change the final seat tallies but only marginally.

Winning the largest number of seats does not automatically guarantee that Sadr will be able to hand-pick a prime minister. The other winning blocs would have to agree on the nomination.

In a 2010 election, Vice President Ayad Allawi’s group won the largest number of seats, albeit with a narrow margin, but he was blocked from becoming premier for which he blamed Tehran.

 

NEW GOVERNMENT

A similar fate could befall Sadr. Iran has publicly stated it will not allow his bloc to govern.

“We will not allow liberals and communists to govern in Iraq,” Ali Akbar Velayati, top adviser to the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said in February.

His statement, which sparked criticism by Iraqi figures, was referring to the electoral alliance between Sadr, the Iraqi Communist Party and other secular groups which joined protests organised by Sadr in 2016 to press the government to see through a move to stem endemic corruption.

Iraqi Communist Party Secretary General Raed Fahmy told Reuters the vote in favour of Sadr’s list, backed by his group, “is a clear message that we must have balanced relations with all (countries) based on non-interference in Iraq’s internal affairs”.

“Everybody is welcome to provide support to Iraq, but not at the expense of its sovereignty and independence,” he added.

During the campaign, frustrated Iraqis of all shades complained about their political elite’s systematic patronage, bad governance and corruption, saying they did not receive any benefits of their country’s oil wealth.

“This vote is a clear message that the people want to change the system of governance that has produced corruption and weakened state institutions,” said Fahmy.

Iraq has been ranked among the world’s most corrupt countries, with high unemployment, poverty, weak public institutions and crumbling infrastructure despite high oil revenues for many years. Endemic corruption has eaten at the government’s financial resources.

Fahmy told his party’s website that Abadi’s bloc was “closer” to Sadr’s than others.

BALANCING ACT

Sadr derives much of his authority from his family. His father, highly respected Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, was killed in 1999 for defying Saddam Hussein. His father’s cousin, Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, was killed by Saddam in 1980.

Celebrations erupted on the streets of Baghdad after the commission’s announcement, with thousands of Sadr’s supporters singing, chanting, dancing and setting off fireworks while carrying his picture and waving Iraqi flags.

Many chanted “Iran out”.

Whoever wins the election will have to contend with the fallout from U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to quit the Iran nuclear deal, a move Iraqis fear could turn their country into a theatre of conflict between Washington and Tehran.

Abadi, a British-educated engineer, came to power four years ago after Islamic State seized a third of Iraq’s territory. He received U.S. military support that was helped the victory of Iraqi security forces over the Sunni militant group, and gave free rein to Iran to back Shi’ite militias fighting on the same side.

If parliament does grant him a second term, Abadi will remain under pressure to maintain the balancing act between Washington and Tehran.

Source: Reuters

May 10, 2018 

Eighty-seven different political parties will contest the Iraqi elections on Saturday 12th May in a country struggling to embrace democracy. It will be Iraq's fourth parliamentary elections since the 2003 US-led invasion and the first national test after the defeat of ISIS (Daesh) in December 2017. The elections decide the 329 members of the Council of Representatives who will, in turn, elect the Iraqi president and prime minister. The election lists include Shia, Sunni and Kurdish coalitions. The prime minister will come from the Shi’ia factions. Candidates are elected to serve for four years.

The incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, on the back of defeating ISIS, is ahead in the polls, although most pundits think he will have difficulty forming a coalition following the election. Abadi caused outrage earlier this year when he attempted to create an alliance with the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), which includes some lethally sectarian Iranian-backed militias such as Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), who waged a genocidal campaign against Iraq’s Sunni population under the guise of fighting ISIS.

Even the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr withdrew from an alliance with Abadi’s Nasr (Victory) Coalition in protest. Sadr is now pursuing a more moderate anti-corruption platform and is distancing himself from Iran’s intensive meddling in Iraq, making an alliance with the Iraqi Communist Party which is called al-Sairoon (The Marchers). There are also rumours indicating that Al-Sadr may form an alliance with Abadi’s list after the poll. Meanwhile Abadi has made a dangerous enemy of the former Shi’ite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Maliki is a pro-Iranian puppet and was widely blamed for the collapse of the Iraqi army and the brutal takeover of vast swathes of Iraq by ISIS. The venally corrupt Maliki spent his two terms in office robbing the Iraqi people and faithfully carrying out instructions from Tehran to wage war on his own Sunni citizens. He now uses his plundered fortune to finance paramilitary intimidation of his political enemies.  Maliki and Abadi both belong to the Shi’ite Dawa party, but this time Maliki has announced his own candidature and refused to back Abadi. He has said that Dawa supporters will be free to choose between his Dawlat al-Qanoon (State of Law Coalition) and Abadi’s Nasr Coalition.

The Sunnis are not united and have presented several lists including one led by Osama al-Nujaifi, one of Iraq's three vice presidents and another one, Wataniya Alliance, led by Vice-President Ayad Allawi, a secular Shi’ia, who is in alliance with former Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Mutlak and the Speaker of the Iraqi Parliament Salim Jabouri.

After the failed attempt at Kurdish independence through a referendum in September 2017, the Kurds have become more divided and are unlikely to have an impact on the formation of the new government.

Following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the toppling of Saddam Hussein, the grossly incompetent American administrator Paul Bremer introduced a system that assured the Kurds are always given the post of President, while the Shi’ias get the Prime Minister’s job and the Sunnis are given the post of Speaker in the parliament. Bremer mistakenly believed that this system would prevent sectarian infighting. In fact it has had almost the opposite effect and has played into the hands of the Iranian mullahs who have exploited the on-going political turmoil to levy a stranglehold on Iraq. Choosing political leaders based on their sect or ethnicity instead of on their merits has had disastrous consequences for Iraq, where political corruption and ineptitude has left the Iraqi economy and infrastructure shattered.

Abadi now says that his country requires more than $100 billion to rebuild the major cities of Ramadi, Fallujah and Mosul, destroyed by the war against ISIS. He is holding out the begging bowl to the international community and has attracted significant pledges of aid from almost everyone except his immediate neighbour Iran, whose paramilitary forces have been largely responsible for much of the Iraqi destruction.

Abadi and other leading contenders for election on 12th May are promising to rebuild Iraq. But the Iraqi population have heard these pledges before. They have waited in vain for 15 years for basic electricity, water and sewerage services to be restored. Iraq boasts the world’s fifth largest proven oil reserves and its landmass covers a vast ocean of gas. It is one of the most fertile Middle Eastern countries and has plenty of water, with the two biggest rivers of the Middle East, the Tigris and the Euphrates, flowing through its territory.

But endemic corruption, poor governance and weak security have left the country’s infrastructure crumbling. Major cities like Baghdad often have less than 2 hours of electricity supply daily. On-going power-cuts and water shortages leave Iraqis boiling with rage. They watch in dismay as the same old faces take power again and again and do nothing but fill their own pockets. Only 20% of the candidates registered for Saturday’s general election are newcomers, so it doesn’t look as if Iraq’s misery will end anytime soon. Even Grand Ayatollah Sistani has joined the fray by condemning past electoral experiments as failures, aiming his criticism at those who were elected or appointed to high positions in the government, whom, he says, abused their power and took part in spreading corruption and squandering public money. He is refusing to endorse any candidate.

The concept of liberty for ordinary Iraqis has become almost as rare as the concept of peace. Corruption has brought Iraq to its knees and only a major onslaught against the criminal political classes will have any chance of restoring order.

Foreign interference has also had a destructive role in the country. Since 2003, Iran has been able to exert significant influence in Iraq and is now pumping money into the Iraqi elections to aid its favoured candidates like Hadi Al-Ameri, leader of the Badr Organization from the Fatah (Conquest) Coalition in alliance with Hashd, the Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias and Nouri al-Maliki.

Iran’s ability to sway the outcome of the Iraqi elections as part of its wider strategy of destabilising the Middle East should be of deep concern to the West. Iranian hegemony in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq is a threat not only to peace in the Middle East, but also to world peace. Iranian meddling, particularly by the terrorist Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), in virtually every aspect of Iraq’s political, economic and security structures, aided and abetted by years of wrong-headed American policies, will make it almost impossible to hold a free and fair election. The only way to ensure free, fair and democratic Iraqi elections is to oust the Iranians from Iraq and end their deadly stranglehold. The US Administration’s new recognition of Iran as the Godfather of international terror and the main sponsor of conflict in the Middle East is at least a promising start.

Struan Stevenson

President, European Iraqi Freedom Association (EIFA)

Struan Stevenson was a member of the European Parliament representing Scotland (1999-2014), president of the Parliament's Delegation for Relations with Iraq (2009-14) and chairman of Friends of a Free Iran Intergroup (2004-14). He is an international lecturer on the Middle East and is also coordinator of Campaign for Iran Change.  

ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – Influential Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has called on Kurds to participate in the Iraqi parliamentary election with “strength and determination.”

“They have to participate with strength and determination, and the voice of the Kurds must triumph over the injustice and corruption same with the Shias and the Sunnis,” Sadr said in response to a question on his website about the participation of the Kurds and the Sunnis.

Kurdish support for the fateful election next week will be crucial in the formation of a new Iraqi government, and that support will be of special importance to the new prime minister.

Corruption and mismanagement have become critical issues in Iraq after the sharp fall in oil prices in 2014, reducing the state budget at a time when additional income is needed to pay for the cost of the war against the Islamic State (IS).

Despite the protests, including those led by Sadr, corruption continues to deplete government resources as it struggles to cope with a rise in spending due to the cost of the war against IS and the challenges of rebuilding cities freed from the extremist group’s grip.

“All minorities must participate firmly and resolutely in the election,” Sadr said, referring to Christians and other ethnic components.

Over 24 million Iraqis are entitled to participate in the ballot to elect 329 deputies in Parliament from about 7,000 candidates in all governorates.

Sadr’s alliance and a section of the Communist party form a coalition partaking in the upcoming parliamentary election. This will be the first election after the defeat of IS, the second after the US forces’ withdrawal from Iraq, and the fourth since 2003.

Sadr’s alliance currently holds 34 seats in Parliament giving him considerable influence in the capital and the predominately Shia southern provinces of Iraq.

The winner will face an arduous task of rebuilding the war-ravaged country and battling the rampant corruption borne by the management of Iraq’s oil revenue.

An estimated $100 billion is required to rebuild the country’s infrastructure, housing, and commercial interests ruined by three years of war.

Source: Kurdistan 24

Are Iraq's Communists on the rise again? Wednesday, 23 May 2018 22:26

It can only be regarded as a remarkable comeback. Communists, after decades in Iraq’s political wilderness, have formed an unexpected alliance with populist Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr, who swept to victory in the country’s parliamentary elections.

The electoral commission announced that the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) had attained just two seats in parliament. But, crucially, their coalition with Mr Al Sadr's Marching Towards Reform bloc (Sairoun) may give them a voice in the next government.

Forty-four year old Sadr and his coalition partners were able to capitalise on public resentment over the current administration’s failure to improve basic services, fight sectarianism and sideline foreign interference.

They won a total of 54 seats in the 329-seat parliament and, for all of their differences, are united on the positions of non-interference in Iraq’s internal affairs, social justice and the battle against corruption.

"The Communists echo the widely held rejection of the governing system of the past 15 years and stand for a reformist, anti-corruption, anti-apportionment platform,” Fanar Haddad, senior research fellow at Singapore University, said.

“Of course, these are positions, not policies, and it is unclear how these positions can be realised in an actual reform agenda,” Mr Haddad told The National.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the influence of Communists diminished in the region. Many Iraqis believed the party was driven more by ideologies that were attractive in theory but were ultimately far from reality.

At their peak in the 1940s under the command of Yusuf Salman Yusuf, also known as Comrade Fahad, the ICP’s influence increased in the country.

But the anti-Communist crackdown by the police, which led to the 1958 revolution that overthrew the monarchy, meant the party had to work discreetly.

At the time, the Iraqi state at the time was shaken by popular uprisings against the imposition of the British mandate.

Since its establishment in 1934, the ICP played a key role in supporting the revolutions by vowing to combat colonialism but its aspirations were short lived by the rise of the Baath Party in the early 1970s.

It was only after the US-led invasion in 2003 that toppled former dictator Saddam Hussein that the ICP was able to re-emerge in Iraqi politics.

Unexpected alliances

Reports circulated that secular lawmakers refused to join forces with the Sadrists as they found difficulties in finding common ground, some even said it was near impossible for religious and secular groups to align.

But the ICP and Sadrists were able to find common ground in social justice and populist protests against government austerity. The Communists realised it had to accept that only a popular leader could bring radical political changes to the country.

Analysts say the ICP’s decision to align with the cleric was decision based on pragmatic considerations.

“They found that they had not been able to have any impact institutionally in Iraq’s political system, so they found common ground with Mr Al Sadr who has been advocating for the same things as them,” Renad Mansour, senior research fellow at Chatham House said.

Mr Al Sadr, known for leading the Mehdi army, an armed militia group which led an insurgency against US troops, has reinvented himself as a populist preacher who has held a firm position against foreign interventions in Iraq.

While he is unlikely to become prime minister, he will, however, command a significant number of seats and has already begun informal talks about government formation.

Raad Fahmi, the ICP's secretary general, said there had been suspicions and apprehensions from some of its members about joining forces with Mr Al Sadr.

“Actions speak louder than words. He’s not the same Moqtada Al Sadr,” Mr Fahmi said.

Mr Al Sadr’s Mehdi army was declared by the Pentagon in 2007 as the group that replaced Al Qaeda in Iraq and the most dangerous “accelerant of potentially self-sustaining sectarian violence”.

The army was accused of targeting Sunnis in Baghdad and for carrying out assignations around the country. They also clashed violently with Iranian-backed Badr organisation, which controls Iraq’s interior ministry and is led by Hadi Al Ameri.

Mr Al Sadr fled to Iran later in 2007 to become an Ayatollah at a Shiite religious centre in the central Iranian city of Qom.

Upon his return to Iraq, he managed to mobilize a support base that ended with mass protests in Baghdad. They demanded better public services and transparency in government.

There were fears that it would be difficult for non-Sadrists to avoid being swamped by his power, assets and organisational abilities.

“It is more likely that the lion’s share of Sairoun’s electoral gains are from the Sadrist component. In other words, Sairoun needs the Sadrists a lot more than the other way around,” Mr Haddad said.

Although the once-forgotten Communists may have little influence over the next Iraqi government’s policies, Mr Al Sadr’s March Towards Reform bloc has once again brought them back into the spotlight.

Source: The National

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The United States has contacted members of a political bloc headed by former foe Moqtada al-Sadr after his parliamentary election victory put the Shi’ite cleric in a strong position to influence the formation of a new government, a top aide said.

Sadr’s surprise win puts Washington in an awkward position. His Mehdi Army militia staged violent uprisings against U.S. troops after Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003.

If Sadr has a strong say in picking a new prime minister, the United States may have to work with him to safeguard its interests in Iraq, one of its most important Arab allies, which also has close ties to Iran.

Dhiaa al-Asadi, a top Sadr aide, said there had been no direct talks with the Americans but intermediaries had been used to open channels with members of his Sairoon alliance.

“They asked what the position of the Sadrist movement will be when they come to power. Are they going to reinvent or invoke the Mahdi Army or reemploy them? Are they going to attack American forces in Iraq,” he told Reuters.

“There’s no return to square one. We are not intending on having any military force other than the official military force, police forces and security forces.”

The United States is believed to have some 7,000 troops in Iraq now, though the Pentagon has only acknowledged 5,200 troops. They are mostly training and advising Iraqi forces.

Washington and Sadr, an Iraqi nationalist, are both opposed to Iran’s deep influence in Iraq, where it arms, trains and funds Shi’ite militias and nurtures close ties with many politicians.

 

Sadr made his surprise comeback by tapping popular resentment toward Iran and what some voters say is a corrupt political elite in Baghdad that it backs.

IRAN UNDER U.S. PRESSURE

The United States has threatened “the strongest sanctions in history” against Iran unless it makes sweeping changes, including dropping its nuclear program and pulling out of the Syrian civil war.

That will likely prompt Tehran to defend its interests fiercely in Iraq, where it vies with Washington for influence.

Sairoon extended an invitation to the Iranian ambassador in Baghdad to attend a meeting of senior diplomats last week. The envoy apologized and said he could not make it, said Asadi.

Sadr has been meeting the leaders of several blocs and setting conditions on his support for candidates for prime minister. He says he wants someone who rejects sectarianism, foreign interference and corruption in Iraq.

 

Sadr will not become premier as he did not run in the election.

His attempts to shape any future government could be undermined by Iran, which has skillfully manipulated Iraqi politics in its favor in the past.

Just days after election results were announced, Qassem Soleimani, head of the foreign operations branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, arrived in Baghdad to meet politicians.

“Soleimani came to weaken the blocs. He is working to break down the alliances,” said an adviser to Iraq’s government.

An Iraqi former senior official said Sadr would try to outfox Iran, but added that Tehran would not tolerate any threats to Shi’ite allies who have sidelined Sadr for years.

“There are limits on how far he can go. At the end they (the Iranians) can control him. They give him a lot of room to maneuver... But eventually, when he challenges the Shi’ites and their interests, I think they will be very tough. They (the Iranians) have very many tools to undermine him.”

Sadr’s bloc has not ruled out forming a coalition with the bloc headed by Iran’s strongest ally, paramilitary leader Hadi al-Amiri, as long as he abandons what Asadi says are sectarian policies and becomes an Iraqi nationalist.

“We did not have an official meeting with them (the Iranians). Sometimes we receive some calls that are related to what’s going on. But this cannot be considered a meeting or a discussion over any issue,” said Asadi.

The election dealt a blow to incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, whose Victory Alliance came in third. But Western diplomats and analysts say Abadi, a British-educated engineer, still has cards to play.

He appears to be emerging as a compromise candidate palatable to all sides because he has managed the competing interests of the United States and Iran - inadvertent allies in the war against Islamic State - during his term in office.

“As of yet, no one has yet emerged as an alternative, not in a serious way,” said Ali al-Mawlawi, head of research at Baghdad-based Al-Bayan think-tank.

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s Muqtada al-Sadr, the maverick Shiite cleric whose political coalition beat out Iran’s favored candidates to come in first in national elections, says he wants to form a government that puts Iraqis first.

The electoral commission announced early Saturday that the militant-turned-populist preacher, who has long spoken out against both Iranian and U.S. influence in Iraq, had defeated his establishment rivals.

Al-Sadr — who is remembered for leading an insurgency against U.S. forces after the 2003 invasion — did not run for a seat himself and is unlikely to become prime minister, but will command a significant number of seats and has already begun informal talks about government formation.

Salah al-Obeidi, a spokesman for al-Sadr’s Sa’eroun political bloc, told The Associated Press that Iraq’s sovereignty was going to be the new government’s “guiding principle.”

“We warn any other country that wants to involve itself in Iraqi politics not to cross the Iraqi people,” he said.

However, even as al-Sadr is in position to nominate a prime minister and set the political agenda for the next four years, he will find his choices limited by Iran.

The Middle East’s pre-eminent Shiite power has a direct line with some of Iraq’s most powerful politicians, and it is trying to rally them as a bloc to undercut al-Sadr.

Al-Sadr’s rise threatens Iran’s claim to speak on behalf of Iraq’s Shiite majority, a precedent that could fuel independent Shiite movements elsewhere. Also at stake are top ministerial posts — political appointments that are a source of patronage and police and military power.

Al-Sadr himself has kept a relatively low public profile. But in a public relations move that appeared to be directed at Iran, he appeared on Thursday with rival cleric Ammar al-Hakim, who has drifted away from Iran’s orbit in recent years, to say the two men share similar visions for the next government.

Tehran has dispatched its top regional military commander, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, to pull together a coalition to counterbalance al-Sadr, according to an Iraqi Shiite militia commander who is familiar with the meetings.

“Iran won’t accept the creation of a Shiite bloc that is a threat to its interests. It’s a red line,” said the commander, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions.

Al-Sadr’s relationship with Iran is a complicated one. Though he has maintained close ties with Iran’s political and religious leadership, in recent years he has denounced the flow of Iranian munitions to Shiite militias in Iraq, all the while maintaining his own so-called Peace Brigades in the holy city of Samarra, north of Baghdad.

Al-Sadr’s former Mehdi Army militia, which spearheaded an insurgency against the U.S., clashed violently with the Iran-backed Badr Organization last decade.

The militias plugged the gaps left by Iraq’s army as soldiers deserted their posts in the face of the Islamic State group’s lightning campaign in the summer of 2014. With direction from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, they turned the tide against the initial advance. In the years that followed, the militias — coordinating with U.S.-backed Iraqi ground forces — slowly pushed IS fighters back. Iraq declared victory over the group last year.

Al-Sadr has said he wants the militias absorbed into the national security forces, a move Iran would find difficult to accept.

Iran is also rankled by al-Sadr’s recent overtures to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which are locked in proxy wars with Tehran in Syria and Yemen. Al-Sadr met with the crown princes of Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi in August, leading Iran’s hard-line Keyhan newspaper to accuse al-Sadr of “selling himself” to the house of Saud.

It is unlikely al-Sadr can pull together a governing coalition without Iran-aligned political groups, which have the votes to form their own alliance that could challenge al-Sadr’s right to name a prime minister.

An electoral alliance of the militias called Fatah, headed by Hadi al-Amiri, the commander of the Badr Organization, won just seven seats fewer than al-Sadr’s bloc. Sa’eroun won 54 seats in Iraq’s 329-seat national assembly, a far cry from the 165 required to claim a majority.

The militias control the powerful Interior Ministry in the outgoing government and will expect a similar position of influence in the new one.

Al-Sadr seems inclined to woo incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who is seen as a centrist when it comes to Iranian and U.S. interests, and who appears to be wavering between al-Sadr and al-Amiri.

But Tehran still holds considerable sway with al-Abadi’s al-Nasr bloc, which includes several Iran-aligned figures, including one newly minted deputy who has come under U.S. sanctions for allegedly financing Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.

Iran’s political allies in Iraq will try to pressure those figures into deserting al-Abadi and collapsing an al-Sadr alliance if the formulation is not to Tehran’s liking, said a Western diplomat who has been speaking to the sides involved. The diplomat spoke on the condition of anonymity because of media regulations.

That gives Iran — and al-Abadi — leverage over al-Sadr to moderate his positions on the militias and Iran.

Hanging above the talks is the implied threat by all sides to mobilize their followers — and militias — if they feel they are being shortchanged. The collective effect could be to push al-Sadr’s bloc toward a broader governing coalition that would dilute his reform agenda.

His top showing at the ballot box means the next prime minister will have to introduce a civil service law that al-Sadr has championed as an antidote to Iraq’s endemic corruption, said Kirk Sowell, the publisher of Inside Iraqi Politics, a political and security newsletter. But that doesn’t mean the Cabinet or parliament will sign off on it.

“There’s not going to be a functioning majority,” said Sowell. “It’ll be a hodge-podge, coalition government, and it’s not going to be any more stable than the last one.”

Source: PBS

BAGHDAD — Iraqis are still haunted by memories of black-clad death squads roaming Baghdad neighborhoods a decade ago, cleansing them of Sunnis as the country was convulsed by sectarian violence.

Many of the mass killings in the capital were done in the name of Moktada al-Sadr, a cleric best remembered by Americans for fiery sermons declaring it a holy duty among his Shiite faithful to attack United States forces.

The militia he led was armed with Iranian-supplied weapons, and Mr. Sadr cultivated a strong alliance with leaders in Tehran, who were eager to supplant the American presence in Iraq and play the dominant role in shaping the country’s future.

Now, the man once demonized by the United States as one of the greatest threats to peace and stability in Iraq has come out as the surprise winner of this month’s tight elections, after a startling reinvention into a populist, anticorruption campaigner whose “Iraq First” message appealed to voters across sectarian divides.

 The results have Washington — and Tehran — on edge, as officials in both countries seek to influence what is expected to be a complex and drawn-out battle behind the scenes to build a coalition government. Mr. Sadr’s bloc won 54 seats — the most of any group, but still far short of a majority in Iraq’s 329-seat Parliament.

Even before final results were announced early Saturday, Mr. Sadr — who did not run as a candidate and has ruled himself out as prime minister — had made clear whom he considers natural political allies. At the top of his list is Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, the moderate Shiite leader who has been America’s partner in the fight against the Islamic State and whose political bloc finished third in the vote.

Pointedly absent from Mr. Sadr’s list of potential partners: pro-Iranian blocs, as he has insistently distanced himself from his former patrons in Iran, whose meddling he has come to see as a destabilizing force in Iraq’s politics.

While Mr. Sadr has all the momentum going into negotiations over the governing coalition, there is no guarantee his bloc will be in power. And it is too early to tell what the election may mean for Iraqi stability or American national security goals.

But the upset has clearly weakened the sectarian foundation of Iraq’s political system — and helped transform Mr. Sadr’s image from the paragon of a militant Shiite into an unexpected symbol of reform and Iraqi nationalism.

As the head of the Sairoon Alliance for Reform, Mr. Sadr presides over an unlikely alliance that pairs his pious, largely working-class Shiite base with Sunni business leaders, liberals and Iraqis looking for relief from the country’s long-simmering economic crisis.

For those joining the alliance, it was important to be convinced that Mr. Sadr’s shift from Shiite firebrand to Iraqi patriot was sincere, and likely to last.

Late last year, the cleric began reaching out to groups outside his base with an offer to form a new political movement, and the country’s embattled leftists and secularists — once his staunch enemies — faced a moment of reckoning.

They remembered how a rogue Shariah court he had established passed sentences on fellow Shiites deemed too submissive toward the American occupation of Iraq. And they recalled the countless Iraqis killed in battles between the country’s security forces and Mr. Sadr’s militia. 

But a ragtag group of communists, social democrats and anarchists have come to embrace Mr. Sadr as a symbol of the reform they have championed for years — an image that the cleric has burnished, seeing it as the best path to political power.

“Let me be honest: We had a lot of apprehensions, a lot of suspicions,” said Raad Fahmi, a leader of Iraq’s Communist Party, which is part of Mr. Sadr’s alliance. “But actions speak louder than words. He’s not the same Moktada al-Sadr.”

ISIS Changes Everything

The change in Mr. Sadr was prompted by the political and security crisis set off by the Islamic State’s takeover of large parts of northern and western Iraq in 2014, according to Sheikh Saleh al-Obeidi, Mr. Sadr’s spokesman. The ensuing violence led to an overwhelming shift in the public mood: a feeling that sectarianism was at the root of much of the country’s suffering.

Mr. Sadr, the scion of an eminent clerical family, has portrayed his changed political philosophy in starkly pragmatic terms.

In his only extensive interview before the elections, given to his own television channel, Mr. Sadr put forth a manifesto largely adopted from his new secularist allies. He said his goals were to put professionals — not partisan loyalists — into positions of power as a way to build national institutions that serve the people instead of political insiders.

“We have tried the Islamists and they failed terribly,” Mr. Sadr said, a rebuke that his aides said included his own movement. “So let us try another way in which the independent technocrat or independent Islamist or secular technocrat, whoever is best for the job, takes over a ministry and makes it productive. We should try that.”

Whether Mr. Sadr can succeed with his reform agenda is an open question, said Joost Hiltermann, the director of the International Crisis Group’s Middle East program, as building a majority coalition will mean partnering with some of the established faces that voters expressed dissatisfaction with at the polls. Those other politicians “have much to lose from an effort to curb corruption,” Mr. Hiltermann said.

Source: The New York Times

 

 


 

Regardless of how one chooses to read the outcome of last Saturday’s elections in Iraq, one thing is for sure: Iraqi voters have rejected the status quo and sought fresh political players to take over. Outgoing prime minister Haider Al Abadi, whose Victory List wooed disenchanted Sunni voters as well as Shiites, lost most of his base to two opposing coalitions: An anti-Iran, anti-United States alliance of Islamists, secularists and Communists, led by nationalist Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr, and a pro-Iran list led by the head of the controversial Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), Hadi Al Ameri. The latter spearheaded the fight against Daesh, but his militias were accused of carrying out atrocities against Sunnis in Nineveh and Salahuddin provinces.

Despite low voter turnout and allegations of rigging, especially in the Kurdish provinces, those voting for Al Sadr’s Revolutionaries for Reform Alliance (Al Sairoon) were shunning ethno-sectarian politics and rejecting foreign meddling in Iraqi affairs. It was stunning that his euphoric supporters were calling for the ousting of Iran right in the heart of Baghdad the day after the elections.

Al Sadr, 44, is an enigmatic and maverick leader followed by millions, especially in the impoverished neighbourhoods of Baghdad. His now-disbanded militia had fought the US military following the 2003 invasion. At one point, he had taken refuge in Iran, but returned to defy the divisive politics of pro-Tehran, disgraced former prime minister Nouri Al Maliki. He was among the first leaders to denounce the quota system that had deepened sectarian tensions and sidelined Sunnis, Kurds and minorities. Coming from a revered religious family that had opposed oppression during the Saddam Hussain era, he is now seen as an Iraqi and Arab nationalist who rejects Iranian and US meddling in Iraqi affairs. He had supported Al Maliki’s successor, Al Abadi, who also rejected identity politics, vowed to fight rampant corruption and waged war against Daesh.

Al Sadr’s victory is important. His list came first in Baghdad, which has maximum seats, and at least eight other provinces. Although he says he is not interested in a political position, he is now seen as kingmaker — the person who will decide who will become Iraq’s next prime minister. While he said he will support Al Abadi for a second term, the latter’s poor performance will become a factor. As things stand now, not one list can form a government on its own. The coming weeks will witness intense negotiations and horse trading to form blocs and alliances that can muster enough support on the floor of the parliament and win a confidence vote.

Al Sadr may still back Al Abadi and he is likely to have the support of the Al Hikma movement as well, led by Ammar Al Hakim, a moderate Shiite leader. The three will need the support of Sunni and Kurdish alliances and individuals. If they succeed, then Iraqis will be on the verge of a major departure from the divisive political system installed by the Americans.

But Iran still has allies who will work to derail the emerging political power. Al Ameri, who came in second, has the support of hardline Shiite voters in most southern provinces. Already he is said to be negotiating with Al Maliki and Al Abadi, under the aegis of Iran’s strongman General Qassem Sulaimani, to form a united bloc in parliament. Al Abadi will be risking his legacy if he decides to join hands with Al Ameri and Al Maliki.

Emerging centrist bloc

One major broker in all this will be the head of the Shiite religious (marja) institution in Najaf; Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani. His influence over Iraqi Shiites is considerable and he is likely to back the emerging centrist bloc being set up by Al Sadr and his allies. He had asked voters not to elect those who were tried before and failed.

Al Sadr’s success underlines a new reality in Iraq: That a growing number of Iraqis are tired of sectarian confrontations and want stability, security and economic recovery. Al Maliki’s track record is dismal. Under his watch, Daesh took over 40 per cent of Iraq and was few kilometres from Baghdad. His role in any bloc will be toxic at best. Al Ameri will continue to rely on Iran’s support and he may emerge as the head of the opposition if he fails to form a government.

The US role remains crucial as well. The animosity between Al Sadr and Washington should not overshadow his bloc’s determination to stamp out sectarian divides and set the country on the path of reconstruction. Last year, he had reached out to Saudi Arabia, as did Al Abadi, and both remain Iraq’s best hope at this juncture.

But Iraq remains part of a power struggle between Iran and the US. The latest US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal has heightened regional tensions. What most Iraqis hope for is that their country, emerging from a brutal war against Daesh, will not be sucked into the vortex of regional strife.

Source: Gulf News

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi met with Moqtada al-Sadr on Saturday, less than 24 hours after the Shi’ite cleric’s bloc was declared winner of Iraq’s parliamentary election, the clearest sign yet they could work together to form a coalition.

“During our meeting, we agreed to work together and with other parties to expedite the process of forming a new Iraqi government,” Abadi said at a joint press conference.

“It will be a strong government, capable of providing to its citizens services, security and economic prosperity.”

 Sadr, a long-time adversary of the United States who also opposes Iranian influence in Iraq, cannot become prime minister because he did not run in the election.
 

However, his bloc’s victory puts him in a position to have a strong say in negotiations. His Sairoon electoral list captured 54 parliamentary seats, 12 more than Abadi’s.

“Our door is open to anyone as long as they want to build the nation, and that it be an Iraqi decision,” Sadr said.

A bloc led by Hadi al-Amiri, one of the most powerful figures in Iraq, came in second. Amiri, who leads an umbrella of paramilitary groups, has maintained close ties with Iran for decades.

Before the election, Tehran publicly stated it would not allow Sadr’s bloc to govern close ally Iraq, with which it shares a border. Iran has influenced the choice for prime minister in the past.

Winning the largest number of seats does not automatically guarantee that Sadr will be able to hand-pick a prime minister.

Parties will have to align themselves to try and form a bloc large enough for the parliamentary majority necessary to nominate a candidate. The government should be formed within 90 days of the official results, but negotiations are expected to drag on for months.

The election dealt a blow to Abadi, but he could still emerge as a compromise candidate palatable to all sides because he has managed the competing interests of the United States and Iran - unwitting allies in the war against Islamic State - during his term in office.

In recent days, Sadr also met with Ammar al-Hakim, whose Hikma Movement trailed in seventh place, as well as with ambassadors from Iraq’s neighboring countries including Saudi Arabia, Tehran’s main rival in the Middle East.

 Source:Reuters

WASHINGTON — Fourteen years after Muqtada al-Sadr’s militias fought American troops, the United States is preparing to work hand in hand with the charismatic Shiite cleric and his movement, hoping to find common cause in curtailing Iran’s influence in the wake of an upset Iraqi election.

Like many Iraqis, Washington was caught off guard by the election, in which a coalition organized by al-Sadr took the largest share of the parliamentary vote. Although al-Sadr, who didn’t run himself, won’t become prime minister, his movement will have an outsize role in building the next government and determining the course of Iraq’s future.

Can the U.S. really set aside the past and embrace a cleric whose Mahdi Army killed U.S. and Iraqi troops and was accused of kidnapping, torturing and killing Sunni Iraqis? The tentative answer is yes.

U.S. officials involved in Iraq policy said President Donald Trump’s administration was cautiously optimistic that al-Sadr, having evolved over the years into a populist, corruption-fighting leader, could herald the formation of a broad-based and inclusive government that tolerates a continuing American presence in the country.

Al-Sadr has turned away from his previous alignment with Iran. U.S. officials believe that will make it more difficult for Tehran to install an Iran-friendly government in Baghdad. The officials weren’t authorized to discuss Iraq’s election publicly and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, said recent public messages from al-Sadr bode positively for U.S. interests — such as finishing off the Islamic State group, a common enemy of the U.S. and al-Sadr’s militia. In addition to vowing to respect Iraq’s constitution, al-Sadr has emphasized Iraqi sovereignty and the need for a balanced foreign policy that limits Iran’s influence, as well as his ability to work with secularists and liberals such as Iraq’s communist party.

“If he practices what he says — if a former adversary embraces your objectives — one should respond to that, but be cautious until you see changes on the ground,” Khalilzad said. “If he’s willing to engage, we should be prepared to engage as well.”

Publicly, the Trump administration has said little about the success of al-Sadr’s slate of candidates, in part because the vote count hasn’t been finalized and a new coalition government has yet to be formed. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said she didn’t want “to get ahead of the process and presume how things are going to look in the end.”

“The overarching theme right now is congratulations to Iraq for holding democratic and free elections,” Nauert said.

Yet in its limited comments, the State Department has also dropped buzzwords that signal tacit acceptance of al-Sadr and his agenda, voicing U.S. support for a “nationalist government” that is “sovereign” and leaves “sectarian divisions behind.”

In many ways, al-Sadr’s surprising political climb mirrors that of Trump and other nationalist figures in Europe, Asia and the Arab world who have tapped into the populist impulses coursing through world politics. In fact, even before this week’s vote, some Iraqis had drawn their own comparisons between al-Sadr and Trump.

With an extraordinary ability to work the media and attract millions to his fiery rallies, al-Sadr railed against corruption and threats from outside the country’s borders. He capitalized on his outsider status and led his coalition to electoral success in a low-turnout election, securing support beyond his traditional Shiite base by allying with secularists and Iraq’s communist party.

It was that populist message that won over Abu Ali Sweirawi, 50, who backed al-Sadr’s candidates in the election. He blamed Iraq’s current government for failing to provide basic services like health care, employment, trash collection and affordable education.

“If it were not for Sadr, we would not finish off these corrupt politicians,” he said, adding that al-Sadr would “form a new government, and God willing, we will see good results.”

For al-Sadr, it’s a striking about-face from 2003, when he led a bloody uprising against American and coalition forces in Iraq. Yet behind the scenes, the U.S. has been in quiet contact with al-Sadr and his camp since at least 2007, several current and former U.S. officials said.

With an extraordinary ability to work the media and attract millions to his fiery rallies, al-Sadr railed against corruption and threats from outside the country’s borders. He capitalized on his outsider status and led his coalition to electoral success in a low-turnout election, securing support beyond his traditional Shiite base by allying with secularists and Iraq’s communist party.

It was that populist message that won over Abu Ali Sweirawi, 50, who backed al-Sadr’s candidates in the election. He blamed Iraq’s current government for failing to provide basic services like health care, employment, trash collection and affordable education.

“If it were not for Sadr, we would not finish off these corrupt politicians,” he said, adding that al-Sadr would “form a new government, and God willing, we will see good results.”

For al-Sadr, it’s a striking about-face from 2003, when he led a bloody uprising against American and coalition forces in Iraq. Yet behind the scenes, the U.S. has been in quiet contact with al-Sadr and his camp since at least 2007, several current and former U.S. officials said.

Source: The Washington Post

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a long-time adversary of the United States, has all but won Iraq’s parliamentary election, the electoral commission said, in a surprise turn of fortune for the Shi’ite leader.

In the first election since Islamic State was defeated in the country, Iran-backed Shi’ite militia chief Hadi al-Amiri’s bloc was in second place, while Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, once seen as the front-runner, trailed in third.

The preliminary results were based on a count of more than 91 percent of the votes cast in 16 of Iraq’s 18 provinces.

Sadr’s bloc did not run in the remaining two provinces, Kurdish Dohuk and the ethnically-mixed oil province of Kirkuk. The results there, which may be delayed due to tensions between local parties, will not affect Sadr’s standing.

Unlike Abadi, a rare ally of both the United States and Iran, Sadr is an opponent of both countries, which have wielded influence in Iraq since a U.S.-led invasion toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003 and thrust the Shi’ite majority into power.

Sadr has led two uprisings against U.S. forces in Iraq and is one of the few Shi’ite leaders to distance himself from Iran.

Despite the election setback, Abadi might still be granted a second term in office by parliament and on Monday he called on all political blocs to respect the results and suggested he was willing to work with Sadr to form a government.

“We are ready to work and cooperate in forming the strongest government for Iraq, free of corruption,” Abadi said in a live televised address. Corruption has been at the top of Sadr’s agenda for several years.

Projecting himself as an Iraqi nationalist, Sadr has a zealous following among the young, poor and dispossessed, but he had been sidelined by influential Iran-backed figures.

He cannot become prime minister as he did not run in the election, though his apparent victory puts him in a position to pick someone for the job.

But even then, his bloc might not necessarily form the next government. Whoever wins the most seats must negotiate a coalition government in order to have a majority in parliament. The government should be formed within 90 days of the official results.

Saturday’s election is the first since the defeat of Islamic State last year. The group overran a third of Iraq in 2014.

Turnout was 44.52 percent with 92 percent of votes counted, the Independent High Electoral Commission said, the lowest participation rate in Iraq’s post-Saddam history. Full results are due to be officially announced later on Monday.

 

ELECTION CALCULUS

Sadr and Amiri both came in first in four of the 10 provinces where votes were counted, but the cleric’s bloc won significantly more votes in the capital, Baghdad, which has the highest number of seats.

A document provided to Reuters by a candidate in Baghdad that was also circulating among journalists and analysts showed results from all 18 provinces.

Reuters could not independently verify the document’s authenticity but the results in it for the 16 announced provinces were in line with those announced by the commission.

Reuters calculations based on the document showed Sadr had won the nationwide popular vote with over 1.3 million votes and gained around 54 of parliament’s 329 seats.

He was followed by Amiri with more than 1.2 million votes, translating into around 47 seats, and Abadi with more than 1 million votes and about 42 seats. Former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a close ally of Iran like Amiri, came in fourth with around 25 seats.

The remaining uncounted ballots, mostly from Iraqis abroad, the security services, and internally displaced people voting in camps and elsewhere, might change the final seat tallies but only marginally.

Winning the largest number of seats does not automatically guarantee that Sadr will be able to hand-pick a prime minister. The other winning blocs would have to agree on the nomination.

In a 2010 election, Vice President Ayad Allawi’s group won the largest number of seats, albeit with a narrow margin, but he was blocked from becoming premier for which he blamed Tehran.

 

NEW GOVERNMENT

A similar fate could befall Sadr. Iran has publicly stated it will not allow his bloc to govern.

“We will not allow liberals and communists to govern in Iraq,” Ali Akbar Velayati, top adviser to the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said in February.

His statement, which sparked criticism by Iraqi figures, was referring to the electoral alliance between Sadr, the Iraqi Communist Party and other secular groups which joined protests organised by Sadr in 2016 to press the government to see through a move to stem endemic corruption.

Iraqi Communist Party Secretary General Raed Fahmy told Reuters the vote in favour of Sadr’s list, backed by his group, “is a clear message that we must have balanced relations with all (countries) based on non-interference in Iraq’s internal affairs”.

“Everybody is welcome to provide support to Iraq, but not at the expense of its sovereignty and independence,” he added.

During the campaign, frustrated Iraqis of all shades complained about their political elite’s systematic patronage, bad governance and corruption, saying they did not receive any benefits of their country’s oil wealth.

“This vote is a clear message that the people want to change the system of governance that has produced corruption and weakened state institutions,” said Fahmy.

Iraq has been ranked among the world’s most corrupt countries, with high unemployment, poverty, weak public institutions and crumbling infrastructure despite high oil revenues for many years. Endemic corruption has eaten at the government’s financial resources.

Fahmy told his party’s website that Abadi’s bloc was “closer” to Sadr’s than others.

BALANCING ACT

Sadr derives much of his authority from his family. His father, highly respected Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, was killed in 1999 for defying Saddam Hussein. His father’s cousin, Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, was killed by Saddam in 1980.

Celebrations erupted on the streets of Baghdad after the commission’s announcement, with thousands of Sadr’s supporters singing, chanting, dancing and setting off fireworks while carrying his picture and waving Iraqi flags.

Many chanted “Iran out”.

Whoever wins the election will have to contend with the fallout from U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to quit the Iran nuclear deal, a move Iraqis fear could turn their country into a theatre of conflict between Washington and Tehran.

Abadi, a British-educated engineer, came to power four years ago after Islamic State seized a third of Iraq’s territory. He received U.S. military support that was helped the victory of Iraqi security forces over the Sunni militant group, and gave free rein to Iran to back Shi’ite militias fighting on the same side.

If parliament does grant him a second term, Abadi will remain under pressure to maintain the balancing act between Washington and Tehran.

Source: Reuters

May 10, 2018 

Eighty-seven different political parties will contest the Iraqi elections on Saturday 12th May in a country struggling to embrace democracy. It will be Iraq's fourth parliamentary elections since the 2003 US-led invasion and the first national test after the defeat of ISIS (Daesh) in December 2017. The elections decide the 329 members of the Council of Representatives who will, in turn, elect the Iraqi president and prime minister. The election lists include Shia, Sunni and Kurdish coalitions. The prime minister will come from the Shi’ia factions. Candidates are elected to serve for four years.

The incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, on the back of defeating ISIS, is ahead in the polls, although most pundits think he will have difficulty forming a coalition following the election. Abadi caused outrage earlier this year when he attempted to create an alliance with the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), which includes some lethally sectarian Iranian-backed militias such as Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), who waged a genocidal campaign against Iraq’s Sunni population under the guise of fighting ISIS.

Even the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr withdrew from an alliance with Abadi’s Nasr (Victory) Coalition in protest. Sadr is now pursuing a more moderate anti-corruption platform and is distancing himself from Iran’s intensive meddling in Iraq, making an alliance with the Iraqi Communist Party which is called al-Sairoon (The Marchers). There are also rumours indicating that Al-Sadr may form an alliance with Abadi’s list after the poll. Meanwhile Abadi has made a dangerous enemy of the former Shi’ite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Maliki is a pro-Iranian puppet and was widely blamed for the collapse of the Iraqi army and the brutal takeover of vast swathes of Iraq by ISIS. The venally corrupt Maliki spent his two terms in office robbing the Iraqi people and faithfully carrying out instructions from Tehran to wage war on his own Sunni citizens. He now uses his plundered fortune to finance paramilitary intimidation of his political enemies.  Maliki and Abadi both belong to the Shi’ite Dawa party, but this time Maliki has announced his own candidature and refused to back Abadi. He has said that Dawa supporters will be free to choose between his Dawlat al-Qanoon (State of Law Coalition) and Abadi’s Nasr Coalition.

The Sunnis are not united and have presented several lists including one led by Osama al-Nujaifi, one of Iraq's three vice presidents and another one, Wataniya Alliance, led by Vice-President Ayad Allawi, a secular Shi’ia, who is in alliance with former Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Mutlak and the Speaker of the Iraqi Parliament Salim Jabouri.

After the failed attempt at Kurdish independence through a referendum in September 2017, the Kurds have become more divided and are unlikely to have an impact on the formation of the new government.

Following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the toppling of Saddam Hussein, the grossly incompetent American administrator Paul Bremer introduced a system that assured the Kurds are always given the post of President, while the Shi’ias get the Prime Minister’s job and the Sunnis are given the post of Speaker in the parliament. Bremer mistakenly believed that this system would prevent sectarian infighting. In fact it has had almost the opposite effect and has played into the hands of the Iranian mullahs who have exploited the on-going political turmoil to levy a stranglehold on Iraq. Choosing political leaders based on their sect or ethnicity instead of on their merits has had disastrous consequences for Iraq, where political corruption and ineptitude has left the Iraqi economy and infrastructure shattered.

Abadi now says that his country requires more than $100 billion to rebuild the major cities of Ramadi, Fallujah and Mosul, destroyed by the war against ISIS. He is holding out the begging bowl to the international community and has attracted significant pledges of aid from almost everyone except his immediate neighbour Iran, whose paramilitary forces have been largely responsible for much of the Iraqi destruction.

Abadi and other leading contenders for election on 12th May are promising to rebuild Iraq. But the Iraqi population have heard these pledges before. They have waited in vain for 15 years for basic electricity, water and sewerage services to be restored. Iraq boasts the world’s fifth largest proven oil reserves and its landmass covers a vast ocean of gas. It is one of the most fertile Middle Eastern countries and has plenty of water, with the two biggest rivers of the Middle East, the Tigris and the Euphrates, flowing through its territory.

But endemic corruption, poor governance and weak security have left the country’s infrastructure crumbling. Major cities like Baghdad often have less than 2 hours of electricity supply daily. On-going power-cuts and water shortages leave Iraqis boiling with rage. They watch in dismay as the same old faces take power again and again and do nothing but fill their own pockets. Only 20% of the candidates registered for Saturday’s general election are newcomers, so it doesn’t look as if Iraq’s misery will end anytime soon. Even Grand Ayatollah Sistani has joined the fray by condemning past electoral experiments as failures, aiming his criticism at those who were elected or appointed to high positions in the government, whom, he says, abused their power and took part in spreading corruption and squandering public money. He is refusing to endorse any candidate.

The concept of liberty for ordinary Iraqis has become almost as rare as the concept of peace. Corruption has brought Iraq to its knees and only a major onslaught against the criminal political classes will have any chance of restoring order.

Foreign interference has also had a destructive role in the country. Since 2003, Iran has been able to exert significant influence in Iraq and is now pumping money into the Iraqi elections to aid its favoured candidates like Hadi Al-Ameri, leader of the Badr Organization from the Fatah (Conquest) Coalition in alliance with Hashd, the Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias and Nouri al-Maliki.

Iran’s ability to sway the outcome of the Iraqi elections as part of its wider strategy of destabilising the Middle East should be of deep concern to the West. Iranian hegemony in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq is a threat not only to peace in the Middle East, but also to world peace. Iranian meddling, particularly by the terrorist Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), in virtually every aspect of Iraq’s political, economic and security structures, aided and abetted by years of wrong-headed American policies, will make it almost impossible to hold a free and fair election. The only way to ensure free, fair and democratic Iraqi elections is to oust the Iranians from Iraq and end their deadly stranglehold. The US Administration’s new recognition of Iran as the Godfather of international terror and the main sponsor of conflict in the Middle East is at least a promising start.

Struan Stevenson

President, European Iraqi Freedom Association (EIFA)

Struan Stevenson was a member of the European Parliament representing Scotland (1999-2014), president of the Parliament's Delegation for Relations with Iraq (2009-14) and chairman of Friends of a Free Iran Intergroup (2004-14). He is an international lecturer on the Middle East and is also coordinator of Campaign for Iran Change.  

ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – Influential Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has called on Kurds to participate in the Iraqi parliamentary election with “strength and determination.”

“They have to participate with strength and determination, and the voice of the Kurds must triumph over the injustice and corruption same with the Shias and the Sunnis,” Sadr said in response to a question on his website about the participation of the Kurds and the Sunnis.

Kurdish support for the fateful election next week will be crucial in the formation of a new Iraqi government, and that support will be of special importance to the new prime minister.

Corruption and mismanagement have become critical issues in Iraq after the sharp fall in oil prices in 2014, reducing the state budget at a time when additional income is needed to pay for the cost of the war against the Islamic State (IS).

Despite the protests, including those led by Sadr, corruption continues to deplete government resources as it struggles to cope with a rise in spending due to the cost of the war against IS and the challenges of rebuilding cities freed from the extremist group’s grip.

“All minorities must participate firmly and resolutely in the election,” Sadr said, referring to Christians and other ethnic components.

Over 24 million Iraqis are entitled to participate in the ballot to elect 329 deputies in Parliament from about 7,000 candidates in all governorates.

Sadr’s alliance and a section of the Communist party form a coalition partaking in the upcoming parliamentary election. This will be the first election after the defeat of IS, the second after the US forces’ withdrawal from Iraq, and the fourth since 2003.

Sadr’s alliance currently holds 34 seats in Parliament giving him considerable influence in the capital and the predominately Shia southern provinces of Iraq.

The winner will face an arduous task of rebuilding the war-ravaged country and battling the rampant corruption borne by the management of Iraq’s oil revenue.

An estimated $100 billion is required to rebuild the country’s infrastructure, housing, and commercial interests ruined by three years of war.

Source: Kurdistan 24

Are Iraq's Communists on the rise again? Wednesday, 23 May 2018 22:26

It can only be regarded as a remarkable comeback. Communists, after decades in Iraq’s political wilderness, have formed an unexpected alliance with populist Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr, who swept to victory in the country’s parliamentary elections.

The electoral commission announced that the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) had attained just two seats in parliament. But, crucially, their coalition with Mr Al Sadr's Marching Towards Reform bloc (Sairoun) may give them a voice in the next government.

Forty-four year old Sadr and his coalition partners were able to capitalise on public resentment over the current administration’s failure to improve basic services, fight sectarianism and sideline foreign interference.

They won a total of 54 seats in the 329-seat parliament and, for all of their differences, are united on the positions of non-interference in Iraq’s internal affairs, social justice and the battle against corruption.

"The Communists echo the widely held rejection of the governing system of the past 15 years and stand for a reformist, anti-corruption, anti-apportionment platform,” Fanar Haddad, senior research fellow at Singapore University, said.

“Of course, these are positions, not policies, and it is unclear how these positions can be realised in an actual reform agenda,” Mr Haddad told The National.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the influence of Communists diminished in the region. Many Iraqis believed the party was driven more by ideologies that were attractive in theory but were ultimately far from reality.

At their peak in the 1940s under the command of Yusuf Salman Yusuf, also known as Comrade Fahad, the ICP’s influence increased in the country.

But the anti-Communist crackdown by the police, which led to the 1958 revolution that overthrew the monarchy, meant the party had to work discreetly.

At the time, the Iraqi state at the time was shaken by popular uprisings against the imposition of the British mandate.

Since its establishment in 1934, the ICP played a key role in supporting the revolutions by vowing to combat colonialism but its aspirations were short lived by the rise of the Baath Party in the early 1970s.

It was only after the US-led invasion in 2003 that toppled former dictator Saddam Hussein that the ICP was able to re-emerge in Iraqi politics.

Unexpected alliances

Reports circulated that secular lawmakers refused to join forces with the Sadrists as they found difficulties in finding common ground, some even said it was near impossible for religious and secular groups to align.

But the ICP and Sadrists were able to find common ground in social justice and populist protests against government austerity. The Communists realised it had to accept that only a popular leader could bring radical political changes to the country.

Analysts say the ICP’s decision to align with the cleric was decision based on pragmatic considerations.

“They found that they had not been able to have any impact institutionally in Iraq’s political system, so they found common ground with Mr Al Sadr who has been advocating for the same things as them,” Renad Mansour, senior research fellow at Chatham House said.

Mr Al Sadr, known for leading the Mehdi army, an armed militia group which led an insurgency against US troops, has reinvented himself as a populist preacher who has held a firm position against foreign interventions in Iraq.

While he is unlikely to become prime minister, he will, however, command a significant number of seats and has already begun informal talks about government formation.

Raad Fahmi, the ICP's secretary general, said there had been suspicions and apprehensions from some of its members about joining forces with Mr Al Sadr.

“Actions speak louder than words. He’s not the same Moqtada Al Sadr,” Mr Fahmi said.

Mr Al Sadr’s Mehdi army was declared by the Pentagon in 2007 as the group that replaced Al Qaeda in Iraq and the most dangerous “accelerant of potentially self-sustaining sectarian violence”.

The army was accused of targeting Sunnis in Baghdad and for carrying out assignations around the country. They also clashed violently with Iranian-backed Badr organisation, which controls Iraq’s interior ministry and is led by Hadi Al Ameri.

Mr Al Sadr fled to Iran later in 2007 to become an Ayatollah at a Shiite religious centre in the central Iranian city of Qom.

Upon his return to Iraq, he managed to mobilize a support base that ended with mass protests in Baghdad. They demanded better public services and transparency in government.

There were fears that it would be difficult for non-Sadrists to avoid being swamped by his power, assets and organisational abilities.

“It is more likely that the lion’s share of Sairoun’s electoral gains are from the Sadrist component. In other words, Sairoun needs the Sadrists a lot more than the other way around,” Mr Haddad said.

Although the once-forgotten Communists may have little influence over the next Iraqi government’s policies, Mr Al Sadr’s March Towards Reform bloc has once again brought them back into the spotlight.

Source: The National

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The United States has contacted members of a political bloc headed by former foe Moqtada al-Sadr after his parliamentary election victory put the Shi’ite cleric in a strong position to influence the formation of a new government, a top aide said.

Sadr’s surprise win puts Washington in an awkward position. His Mehdi Army militia staged violent uprisings against U.S. troops after Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003.

If Sadr has a strong say in picking a new prime minister, the United States may have to work with him to safeguard its interests in Iraq, one of its most important Arab allies, which also has close ties to Iran.

Dhiaa al-Asadi, a top Sadr aide, said there had been no direct talks with the Americans but intermediaries had been used to open channels with members of his Sairoon alliance.

“They asked what the position of the Sadrist movement will be when they come to power. Are they going to reinvent or invoke the Mahdi Army or reemploy them? Are they going to attack American forces in Iraq,” he told Reuters.

“There’s no return to square one. We are not intending on having any military force other than the official military force, police forces and security forces.”

The United States is believed to have some 7,000 troops in Iraq now, though the Pentagon has only acknowledged 5,200 troops. They are mostly training and advising Iraqi forces.

Washington and Sadr, an Iraqi nationalist, are both opposed to Iran’s deep influence in Iraq, where it arms, trains and funds Shi’ite militias and nurtures close ties with many politicians.

 

Sadr made his surprise comeback by tapping popular resentment toward Iran and what some voters say is a corrupt political elite in Baghdad that it backs.

IRAN UNDER U.S. PRESSURE

The United States has threatened “the strongest sanctions in history” against Iran unless it makes sweeping changes, including dropping its nuclear program and pulling out of the Syrian civil war.

That will likely prompt Tehran to defend its interests fiercely in Iraq, where it vies with Washington for influence.

Sairoon extended an invitation to the Iranian ambassador in Baghdad to attend a meeting of senior diplomats last week. The envoy apologized and said he could not make it, said Asadi.

Sadr has been meeting the leaders of several blocs and setting conditions on his support for candidates for prime minister. He says he wants someone who rejects sectarianism, foreign interference and corruption in Iraq.

 

Sadr will not become premier as he did not run in the election.

His attempts to shape any future government could be undermined by Iran, which has skillfully manipulated Iraqi politics in its favor in the past.

Just days after election results were announced, Qassem Soleimani, head of the foreign operations branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, arrived in Baghdad to meet politicians.

“Soleimani came to weaken the blocs. He is working to break down the alliances,” said an adviser to Iraq’s government.

An Iraqi former senior official said Sadr would try to outfox Iran, but added that Tehran would not tolerate any threats to Shi’ite allies who have sidelined Sadr for years.

“There are limits on how far he can go. At the end they (the Iranians) can control him. They give him a lot of room to maneuver... But eventually, when he challenges the Shi’ites and their interests, I think they will be very tough. They (the Iranians) have very many tools to undermine him.”

Sadr’s bloc has not ruled out forming a coalition with the bloc headed by Iran’s strongest ally, paramilitary leader Hadi al-Amiri, as long as he abandons what Asadi says are sectarian policies and becomes an Iraqi nationalist.

“We did not have an official meeting with them (the Iranians). Sometimes we receive some calls that are related to what’s going on. But this cannot be considered a meeting or a discussion over any issue,” said Asadi.

The election dealt a blow to incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, whose Victory Alliance came in third. But Western diplomats and analysts say Abadi, a British-educated engineer, still has cards to play.

He appears to be emerging as a compromise candidate palatable to all sides because he has managed the competing interests of the United States and Iran - inadvertent allies in the war against Islamic State - during his term in office.

“As of yet, no one has yet emerged as an alternative, not in a serious way,” said Ali al-Mawlawi, head of research at Baghdad-based Al-Bayan think-tank.

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s Muqtada al-Sadr, the maverick Shiite cleric whose political coalition beat out Iran’s favored candidates to come in first in national elections, says he wants to form a government that puts Iraqis first.

The electoral commission announced early Saturday that the militant-turned-populist preacher, who has long spoken out against both Iranian and U.S. influence in Iraq, had defeated his establishment rivals.

Al-Sadr — who is remembered for leading an insurgency against U.S. forces after the 2003 invasion — did not run for a seat himself and is unlikely to become prime minister, but will command a significant number of seats and has already begun informal talks about government formation.

Salah al-Obeidi, a spokesman for al-Sadr’s Sa’eroun political bloc, told The Associated Press that Iraq’s sovereignty was going to be the new government’s “guiding principle.”

“We warn any other country that wants to involve itself in Iraqi politics not to cross the Iraqi people,” he said.

However, even as al-Sadr is in position to nominate a prime minister and set the political agenda for the next four years, he will find his choices limited by Iran.

The Middle East’s pre-eminent Shiite power has a direct line with some of Iraq’s most powerful politicians, and it is trying to rally them as a bloc to undercut al-Sadr.

Al-Sadr’s rise threatens Iran’s claim to speak on behalf of Iraq’s Shiite majority, a precedent that could fuel independent Shiite movements elsewhere. Also at stake are top ministerial posts — political appointments that are a source of patronage and police and military power.

Al-Sadr himself has kept a relatively low public profile. But in a public relations move that appeared to be directed at Iran, he appeared on Thursday with rival cleric Ammar al-Hakim, who has drifted away from Iran’s orbit in recent years, to say the two men share similar visions for the next government.

Tehran has dispatched its top regional military commander, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, to pull together a coalition to counterbalance al-Sadr, according to an Iraqi Shiite militia commander who is familiar with the meetings.

“Iran won’t accept the creation of a Shiite bloc that is a threat to its interests. It’s a red line,” said the commander, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions.

Al-Sadr’s relationship with Iran is a complicated one. Though he has maintained close ties with Iran’s political and religious leadership, in recent years he has denounced the flow of Iranian munitions to Shiite militias in Iraq, all the while maintaining his own so-called Peace Brigades in the holy city of Samarra, north of Baghdad.

Al-Sadr’s former Mehdi Army militia, which spearheaded an insurgency against the U.S., clashed violently with the Iran-backed Badr Organization last decade.

The militias plugged the gaps left by Iraq’s army as soldiers deserted their posts in the face of the Islamic State group’s lightning campaign in the summer of 2014. With direction from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, they turned the tide against the initial advance. In the years that followed, the militias — coordinating with U.S.-backed Iraqi ground forces — slowly pushed IS fighters back. Iraq declared victory over the group last year.

Al-Sadr has said he wants the militias absorbed into the national security forces, a move Iran would find difficult to accept.

Iran is also rankled by al-Sadr’s recent overtures to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which are locked in proxy wars with Tehran in Syria and Yemen. Al-Sadr met with the crown princes of Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi in August, leading Iran’s hard-line Keyhan newspaper to accuse al-Sadr of “selling himself” to the house of Saud.

It is unlikely al-Sadr can pull together a governing coalition without Iran-aligned political groups, which have the votes to form their own alliance that could challenge al-Sadr’s right to name a prime minister.

An electoral alliance of the militias called Fatah, headed by Hadi al-Amiri, the commander of the Badr Organization, won just seven seats fewer than al-Sadr’s bloc. Sa’eroun won 54 seats in Iraq’s 329-seat national assembly, a far cry from the 165 required to claim a majority.

The militias control the powerful Interior Ministry in the outgoing government and will expect a similar position of influence in the new one.

Al-Sadr seems inclined to woo incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who is seen as a centrist when it comes to Iranian and U.S. interests, and who appears to be wavering between al-Sadr and al-Amiri.

But Tehran still holds considerable sway with al-Abadi’s al-Nasr bloc, which includes several Iran-aligned figures, including one newly minted deputy who has come under U.S. sanctions for allegedly financing Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.

Iran’s political allies in Iraq will try to pressure those figures into deserting al-Abadi and collapsing an al-Sadr alliance if the formulation is not to Tehran’s liking, said a Western diplomat who has been speaking to the sides involved. The diplomat spoke on the condition of anonymity because of media regulations.

That gives Iran — and al-Abadi — leverage over al-Sadr to moderate his positions on the militias and Iran.

Hanging above the talks is the implied threat by all sides to mobilize their followers — and militias — if they feel they are being shortchanged. The collective effect could be to push al-Sadr’s bloc toward a broader governing coalition that would dilute his reform agenda.

His top showing at the ballot box means the next prime minister will have to introduce a civil service law that al-Sadr has championed as an antidote to Iraq’s endemic corruption, said Kirk Sowell, the publisher of Inside Iraqi Politics, a political and security newsletter. But that doesn’t mean the Cabinet or parliament will sign off on it.

“There’s not going to be a functioning majority,” said Sowell. “It’ll be a hodge-podge, coalition government, and it’s not going to be any more stable than the last one.”

Source: PBS

BAGHDAD — Iraqis are still haunted by memories of black-clad death squads roaming Baghdad neighborhoods a decade ago, cleansing them of Sunnis as the country was convulsed by sectarian violence.

Many of the mass killings in the capital were done in the name of Moktada al-Sadr, a cleric best remembered by Americans for fiery sermons declaring it a holy duty among his Shiite faithful to attack United States forces.

The militia he led was armed with Iranian-supplied weapons, and Mr. Sadr cultivated a strong alliance with leaders in Tehran, who were eager to supplant the American presence in Iraq and play the dominant role in shaping the country’s future.

Now, the man once demonized by the United States as one of the greatest threats to peace and stability in Iraq has come out as the surprise winner of this month’s tight elections, after a startling reinvention into a populist, anticorruption campaigner whose “Iraq First” message appealed to voters across sectarian divides.

 The results have Washington — and Tehran — on edge, as officials in both countries seek to influence what is expected to be a complex and drawn-out battle behind the scenes to build a coalition government. Mr. Sadr’s bloc won 54 seats — the most of any group, but still far short of a majority in Iraq’s 329-seat Parliament.

Even before final results were announced early Saturday, Mr. Sadr — who did not run as a candidate and has ruled himself out as prime minister — had made clear whom he considers natural political allies. At the top of his list is Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, the moderate Shiite leader who has been America’s partner in the fight against the Islamic State and whose political bloc finished third in the vote.

Pointedly absent from Mr. Sadr’s list of potential partners: pro-Iranian blocs, as he has insistently distanced himself from his former patrons in Iran, whose meddling he has come to see as a destabilizing force in Iraq’s politics.

While Mr. Sadr has all the momentum going into negotiations over the governing coalition, there is no guarantee his bloc will be in power. And it is too early to tell what the election may mean for Iraqi stability or American national security goals.

But the upset has clearly weakened the sectarian foundation of Iraq’s political system — and helped transform Mr. Sadr’s image from the paragon of a militant Shiite into an unexpected symbol of reform and Iraqi nationalism.

As the head of the Sairoon Alliance for Reform, Mr. Sadr presides over an unlikely alliance that pairs his pious, largely working-class Shiite base with Sunni business leaders, liberals and Iraqis looking for relief from the country’s long-simmering economic crisis.

For those joining the alliance, it was important to be convinced that Mr. Sadr’s shift from Shiite firebrand to Iraqi patriot was sincere, and likely to last.

Late last year, the cleric began reaching out to groups outside his base with an offer to form a new political movement, and the country’s embattled leftists and secularists — once his staunch enemies — faced a moment of reckoning.

They remembered how a rogue Shariah court he had established passed sentences on fellow Shiites deemed too submissive toward the American occupation of Iraq. And they recalled the countless Iraqis killed in battles between the country’s security forces and Mr. Sadr’s militia. 

But a ragtag group of communists, social democrats and anarchists have come to embrace Mr. Sadr as a symbol of the reform they have championed for years — an image that the cleric has burnished, seeing it as the best path to political power.

“Let me be honest: We had a lot of apprehensions, a lot of suspicions,” said Raad Fahmi, a leader of Iraq’s Communist Party, which is part of Mr. Sadr’s alliance. “But actions speak louder than words. He’s not the same Moktada al-Sadr.”

ISIS Changes Everything

The change in Mr. Sadr was prompted by the political and security crisis set off by the Islamic State’s takeover of large parts of northern and western Iraq in 2014, according to Sheikh Saleh al-Obeidi, Mr. Sadr’s spokesman. The ensuing violence led to an overwhelming shift in the public mood: a feeling that sectarianism was at the root of much of the country’s suffering.

Mr. Sadr, the scion of an eminent clerical family, has portrayed his changed political philosophy in starkly pragmatic terms.

In his only extensive interview before the elections, given to his own television channel, Mr. Sadr put forth a manifesto largely adopted from his new secularist allies. He said his goals were to put professionals — not partisan loyalists — into positions of power as a way to build national institutions that serve the people instead of political insiders.

“We have tried the Islamists and they failed terribly,” Mr. Sadr said, a rebuke that his aides said included his own movement. “So let us try another way in which the independent technocrat or independent Islamist or secular technocrat, whoever is best for the job, takes over a ministry and makes it productive. We should try that.”

Whether Mr. Sadr can succeed with his reform agenda is an open question, said Joost Hiltermann, the director of the International Crisis Group’s Middle East program, as building a majority coalition will mean partnering with some of the established faces that voters expressed dissatisfaction with at the polls. Those other politicians “have much to lose from an effort to curb corruption,” Mr. Hiltermann said.

Source: The New York Times

 

 


 

Regardless of how one chooses to read the outcome of last Saturday’s elections in Iraq, one thing is for sure: Iraqi voters have rejected the status quo and sought fresh political players to take over. Outgoing prime minister Haider Al Abadi, whose Victory List wooed disenchanted Sunni voters as well as Shiites, lost most of his base to two opposing coalitions: An anti-Iran, anti-United States alliance of Islamists, secularists and Communists, led by nationalist Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr, and a pro-Iran list led by the head of the controversial Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), Hadi Al Ameri. The latter spearheaded the fight against Daesh, but his militias were accused of carrying out atrocities against Sunnis in Nineveh and Salahuddin provinces.

Despite low voter turnout and allegations of rigging, especially in the Kurdish provinces, those voting for Al Sadr’s Revolutionaries for Reform Alliance (Al Sairoon) were shunning ethno-sectarian politics and rejecting foreign meddling in Iraqi affairs. It was stunning that his euphoric supporters were calling for the ousting of Iran right in the heart of Baghdad the day after the elections.

Al Sadr, 44, is an enigmatic and maverick leader followed by millions, especially in the impoverished neighbourhoods of Baghdad. His now-disbanded militia had fought the US military following the 2003 invasion. At one point, he had taken refuge in Iran, but returned to defy the divisive politics of pro-Tehran, disgraced former prime minister Nouri Al Maliki. He was among the first leaders to denounce the quota system that had deepened sectarian tensions and sidelined Sunnis, Kurds and minorities. Coming from a revered religious family that had opposed oppression during the Saddam Hussain era, he is now seen as an Iraqi and Arab nationalist who rejects Iranian and US meddling in Iraqi affairs. He had supported Al Maliki’s successor, Al Abadi, who also rejected identity politics, vowed to fight rampant corruption and waged war against Daesh.

Al Sadr’s victory is important. His list came first in Baghdad, which has maximum seats, and at least eight other provinces. Although he says he is not interested in a political position, he is now seen as kingmaker — the person who will decide who will become Iraq’s next prime minister. While he said he will support Al Abadi for a second term, the latter’s poor performance will become a factor. As things stand now, not one list can form a government on its own. The coming weeks will witness intense negotiations and horse trading to form blocs and alliances that can muster enough support on the floor of the parliament and win a confidence vote.

Al Sadr may still back Al Abadi and he is likely to have the support of the Al Hikma movement as well, led by Ammar Al Hakim, a moderate Shiite leader. The three will need the support of Sunni and Kurdish alliances and individuals. If they succeed, then Iraqis will be on the verge of a major departure from the divisive political system installed by the Americans.

But Iran still has allies who will work to derail the emerging political power. Al Ameri, who came in second, has the support of hardline Shiite voters in most southern provinces. Already he is said to be negotiating with Al Maliki and Al Abadi, under the aegis of Iran’s strongman General Qassem Sulaimani, to form a united bloc in parliament. Al Abadi will be risking his legacy if he decides to join hands with Al Ameri and Al Maliki.

Emerging centrist bloc

One major broker in all this will be the head of the Shiite religious (marja) institution in Najaf; Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani. His influence over Iraqi Shiites is considerable and he is likely to back the emerging centrist bloc being set up by Al Sadr and his allies. He had asked voters not to elect those who were tried before and failed.

Al Sadr’s success underlines a new reality in Iraq: That a growing number of Iraqis are tired of sectarian confrontations and want stability, security and economic recovery. Al Maliki’s track record is dismal. Under his watch, Daesh took over 40 per cent of Iraq and was few kilometres from Baghdad. His role in any bloc will be toxic at best. Al Ameri will continue to rely on Iran’s support and he may emerge as the head of the opposition if he fails to form a government.

The US role remains crucial as well. The animosity between Al Sadr and Washington should not overshadow his bloc’s determination to stamp out sectarian divides and set the country on the path of reconstruction. Last year, he had reached out to Saudi Arabia, as did Al Abadi, and both remain Iraq’s best hope at this juncture.

But Iraq remains part of a power struggle between Iran and the US. The latest US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal has heightened regional tensions. What most Iraqis hope for is that their country, emerging from a brutal war against Daesh, will not be sucked into the vortex of regional strife.

Source: Gulf News

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi met with Moqtada al-Sadr on Saturday, less than 24 hours after the Shi’ite cleric’s bloc was declared winner of Iraq’s parliamentary election, the clearest sign yet they could work together to form a coalition.

“During our meeting, we agreed to work together and with other parties to expedite the process of forming a new Iraqi government,” Abadi said at a joint press conference.

“It will be a strong government, capable of providing to its citizens services, security and economic prosperity.”

 Sadr, a long-time adversary of the United States who also opposes Iranian influence in Iraq, cannot become prime minister because he did not run in the election.
 

However, his bloc’s victory puts him in a position to have a strong say in negotiations. His Sairoon electoral list captured 54 parliamentary seats, 12 more than Abadi’s.

“Our door is open to anyone as long as they want to build the nation, and that it be an Iraqi decision,” Sadr said.

A bloc led by Hadi al-Amiri, one of the most powerful figures in Iraq, came in second. Amiri, who leads an umbrella of paramilitary groups, has maintained close ties with Iran for decades.

Before the election, Tehran publicly stated it would not allow Sadr’s bloc to govern close ally Iraq, with which it shares a border. Iran has influenced the choice for prime minister in the past.

Winning the largest number of seats does not automatically guarantee that Sadr will be able to hand-pick a prime minister.

Parties will have to align themselves to try and form a bloc large enough for the parliamentary majority necessary to nominate a candidate. The government should be formed within 90 days of the official results, but negotiations are expected to drag on for months.

The election dealt a blow to Abadi, but he could still emerge as a compromise candidate palatable to all sides because he has managed the competing interests of the United States and Iran - unwitting allies in the war against Islamic State - during his term in office.

In recent days, Sadr also met with Ammar al-Hakim, whose Hikma Movement trailed in seventh place, as well as with ambassadors from Iraq’s neighboring countries including Saudi Arabia, Tehran’s main rival in the Middle East.

 Source:Reuters

WASHINGTON — Fourteen years after Muqtada al-Sadr’s militias fought American troops, the United States is preparing to work hand in hand with the charismatic Shiite cleric and his movement, hoping to find common cause in curtailing Iran’s influence in the wake of an upset Iraqi election.

Like many Iraqis, Washington was caught off guard by the election, in which a coalition organized by al-Sadr took the largest share of the parliamentary vote. Although al-Sadr, who didn’t run himself, won’t become prime minister, his movement will have an outsize role in building the next government and determining the course of Iraq’s future.

Can the U.S. really set aside the past and embrace a cleric whose Mahdi Army killed U.S. and Iraqi troops and was accused of kidnapping, torturing and killing Sunni Iraqis? The tentative answer is yes.

U.S. officials involved in Iraq policy said President Donald Trump’s administration was cautiously optimistic that al-Sadr, having evolved over the years into a populist, corruption-fighting leader, could herald the formation of a broad-based and inclusive government that tolerates a continuing American presence in the country.

Al-Sadr has turned away from his previous alignment with Iran. U.S. officials believe that will make it more difficult for Tehran to install an Iran-friendly government in Baghdad. The officials weren’t authorized to discuss Iraq’s election publicly and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, said recent public messages from al-Sadr bode positively for U.S. interests — such as finishing off the Islamic State group, a common enemy of the U.S. and al-Sadr’s militia. In addition to vowing to respect Iraq’s constitution, al-Sadr has emphasized Iraqi sovereignty and the need for a balanced foreign policy that limits Iran’s influence, as well as his ability to work with secularists and liberals such as Iraq’s communist party.

“If he practices what he says — if a former adversary embraces your objectives — one should respond to that, but be cautious until you see changes on the ground,” Khalilzad said. “If he’s willing to engage, we should be prepared to engage as well.”

Publicly, the Trump administration has said little about the success of al-Sadr’s slate of candidates, in part because the vote count hasn’t been finalized and a new coalition government has yet to be formed. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said she didn’t want “to get ahead of the process and presume how things are going to look in the end.”

“The overarching theme right now is congratulations to Iraq for holding democratic and free elections,” Nauert said.

Yet in its limited comments, the State Department has also dropped buzzwords that signal tacit acceptance of al-Sadr and his agenda, voicing U.S. support for a “nationalist government” that is “sovereign” and leaves “sectarian divisions behind.”

In many ways, al-Sadr’s surprising political climb mirrors that of Trump and other nationalist figures in Europe, Asia and the Arab world who have tapped into the populist impulses coursing through world politics. In fact, even before this week’s vote, some Iraqis had drawn their own comparisons between al-Sadr and Trump.

With an extraordinary ability to work the media and attract millions to his fiery rallies, al-Sadr railed against corruption and threats from outside the country’s borders. He capitalized on his outsider status and led his coalition to electoral success in a low-turnout election, securing support beyond his traditional Shiite base by allying with secularists and Iraq’s communist party.

It was that populist message that won over Abu Ali Sweirawi, 50, who backed al-Sadr’s candidates in the election. He blamed Iraq’s current government for failing to provide basic services like health care, employment, trash collection and affordable education.

“If it were not for Sadr, we would not finish off these corrupt politicians,” he said, adding that al-Sadr would “form a new government, and God willing, we will see good results.”

For al-Sadr, it’s a striking about-face from 2003, when he led a bloody uprising against American and coalition forces in Iraq. Yet behind the scenes, the U.S. has been in quiet contact with al-Sadr and his camp since at least 2007, several current and former U.S. officials said.

With an extraordinary ability to work the media and attract millions to his fiery rallies, al-Sadr railed against corruption and threats from outside the country’s borders. He capitalized on his outsider status and led his coalition to electoral success in a low-turnout election, securing support beyond his traditional Shiite base by allying with secularists and Iraq’s communist party.

It was that populist message that won over Abu Ali Sweirawi, 50, who backed al-Sadr’s candidates in the election. He blamed Iraq’s current government for failing to provide basic services like health care, employment, trash collection and affordable education.

“If it were not for Sadr, we would not finish off these corrupt politicians,” he said, adding that al-Sadr would “form a new government, and God willing, we will see good results.”

For al-Sadr, it’s a striking about-face from 2003, when he led a bloody uprising against American and coalition forces in Iraq. Yet behind the scenes, the U.S. has been in quiet contact with al-Sadr and his camp since at least 2007, several current and former U.S. officials said.

Source: The Washington Post

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a long-time adversary of the United States, has all but won Iraq’s parliamentary election, the electoral commission said, in a surprise turn of fortune for the Shi’ite leader.

In the first election since Islamic State was defeated in the country, Iran-backed Shi’ite militia chief Hadi al-Amiri’s bloc was in second place, while Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, once seen as the front-runner, trailed in third.

The preliminary results were based on a count of more than 91 percent of the votes cast in 16 of Iraq’s 18 provinces.

Sadr’s bloc did not run in the remaining two provinces, Kurdish Dohuk and the ethnically-mixed oil province of Kirkuk. The results there, which may be delayed due to tensions between local parties, will not affect Sadr’s standing.

Unlike Abadi, a rare ally of both the United States and Iran, Sadr is an opponent of both countries, which have wielded influence in Iraq since a U.S.-led invasion toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003 and thrust the Shi’ite majority into power.

Sadr has led two uprisings against U.S. forces in Iraq and is one of the few Shi’ite leaders to distance himself from Iran.

Despite the election setback, Abadi might still be granted a second term in office by parliament and on Monday he called on all political blocs to respect the results and suggested he was willing to work with Sadr to form a government.

“We are ready to work and cooperate in forming the strongest government for Iraq, free of corruption,” Abadi said in a live televised address. Corruption has been at the top of Sadr’s agenda for several years.

Projecting himself as an Iraqi nationalist, Sadr has a zealous following among the young, poor and dispossessed, but he had been sidelined by influential Iran-backed figures.

He cannot become prime minister as he did not run in the election, though his apparent victory puts him in a position to pick someone for the job.

But even then, his bloc might not necessarily form the next government. Whoever wins the most seats must negotiate a coalition government in order to have a majority in parliament. The government should be formed within 90 days of the official results.

Saturday’s election is the first since the defeat of Islamic State last year. The group overran a third of Iraq in 2014.

Turnout was 44.52 percent with 92 percent of votes counted, the Independent High Electoral Commission said, the lowest participation rate in Iraq’s post-Saddam history. Full results are due to be officially announced later on Monday.

 

ELECTION CALCULUS

Sadr and Amiri both came in first in four of the 10 provinces where votes were counted, but the cleric’s bloc won significantly more votes in the capital, Baghdad, which has the highest number of seats.

A document provided to Reuters by a candidate in Baghdad that was also circulating among journalists and analysts showed results from all 18 provinces.

Reuters could not independently verify the document’s authenticity but the results in it for the 16 announced provinces were in line with those announced by the commission.

Reuters calculations based on the document showed Sadr had won the nationwide popular vote with over 1.3 million votes and gained around 54 of parliament’s 329 seats.

He was followed by Amiri with more than 1.2 million votes, translating into around 47 seats, and Abadi with more than 1 million votes and about 42 seats. Former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a close ally of Iran like Amiri, came in fourth with around 25 seats.

The remaining uncounted ballots, mostly from Iraqis abroad, the security services, and internally displaced people voting in camps and elsewhere, might change the final seat tallies but only marginally.

Winning the largest number of seats does not automatically guarantee that Sadr will be able to hand-pick a prime minister. The other winning blocs would have to agree on the nomination.

In a 2010 election, Vice President Ayad Allawi’s group won the largest number of seats, albeit with a narrow margin, but he was blocked from becoming premier for which he blamed Tehran.

 

NEW GOVERNMENT

A similar fate could befall Sadr. Iran has publicly stated it will not allow his bloc to govern.

“We will not allow liberals and communists to govern in Iraq,” Ali Akbar Velayati, top adviser to the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said in February.

His statement, which sparked criticism by Iraqi figures, was referring to the electoral alliance between Sadr, the Iraqi Communist Party and other secular groups which joined protests organised by Sadr in 2016 to press the government to see through a move to stem endemic corruption.

Iraqi Communist Party Secretary General Raed Fahmy told Reuters the vote in favour of Sadr’s list, backed by his group, “is a clear message that we must have balanced relations with all (countries) based on non-interference in Iraq’s internal affairs”.

“Everybody is welcome to provide support to Iraq, but not at the expense of its sovereignty and independence,” he added.

During the campaign, frustrated Iraqis of all shades complained about their political elite’s systematic patronage, bad governance and corruption, saying they did not receive any benefits of their country’s oil wealth.

“This vote is a clear message that the people want to change the system of governance that has produced corruption and weakened state institutions,” said Fahmy.

Iraq has been ranked among the world’s most corrupt countries, with high unemployment, poverty, weak public institutions and crumbling infrastructure despite high oil revenues for many years. Endemic corruption has eaten at the government’s financial resources.

Fahmy told his party’s website that Abadi’s bloc was “closer” to Sadr’s than others.

BALANCING ACT

Sadr derives much of his authority from his family. His father, highly respected Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, was killed in 1999 for defying Saddam Hussein. His father’s cousin, Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, was killed by Saddam in 1980.

Celebrations erupted on the streets of Baghdad after the commission’s announcement, with thousands of Sadr’s supporters singing, chanting, dancing and setting off fireworks while carrying his picture and waving Iraqi flags.

Many chanted “Iran out”.

Whoever wins the election will have to contend with the fallout from U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to quit the Iran nuclear deal, a move Iraqis fear could turn their country into a theatre of conflict between Washington and Tehran.

Abadi, a British-educated engineer, came to power four years ago after Islamic State seized a third of Iraq’s territory. He received U.S. military support that was helped the victory of Iraqi security forces over the Sunni militant group, and gave free rein to Iran to back Shi’ite militias fighting on the same side.

If parliament does grant him a second term, Abadi will remain under pressure to maintain the balancing act between Washington and Tehran.

Source: Reuters

May 10, 2018 

Eighty-seven different political parties will contest the Iraqi elections on Saturday 12th May in a country struggling to embrace democracy. It will be Iraq's fourth parliamentary elections since the 2003 US-led invasion and the first national test after the defeat of ISIS (Daesh) in December 2017. The elections decide the 329 members of the Council of Representatives who will, in turn, elect the Iraqi president and prime minister. The election lists include Shia, Sunni and Kurdish coalitions. The prime minister will come from the Shi’ia factions. Candidates are elected to serve for four years.

The incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, on the back of defeating ISIS, is ahead in the polls, although most pundits think he will have difficulty forming a coalition following the election. Abadi caused outrage earlier this year when he attempted to create an alliance with the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), which includes some lethally sectarian Iranian-backed militias such as Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), who waged a genocidal campaign against Iraq’s Sunni population under the guise of fighting ISIS.

Even the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr withdrew from an alliance with Abadi’s Nasr (Victory) Coalition in protest. Sadr is now pursuing a more moderate anti-corruption platform and is distancing himself from Iran’s intensive meddling in Iraq, making an alliance with the Iraqi Communist Party which is called al-Sairoon (The Marchers). There are also rumours indicating that Al-Sadr may form an alliance with Abadi’s list after the poll. Meanwhile Abadi has made a dangerous enemy of the former Shi’ite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Maliki is a pro-Iranian puppet and was widely blamed for the collapse of the Iraqi army and the brutal takeover of vast swathes of Iraq by ISIS. The venally corrupt Maliki spent his two terms in office robbing the Iraqi people and faithfully carrying out instructions from Tehran to wage war on his own Sunni citizens. He now uses his plundered fortune to finance paramilitary intimidation of his political enemies.  Maliki and Abadi both belong to the Shi’ite Dawa party, but this time Maliki has announced his own candidature and refused to back Abadi. He has said that Dawa supporters will be free to choose between his Dawlat al-Qanoon (State of Law Coalition) and Abadi’s Nasr Coalition.

The Sunnis are not united and have presented several lists including one led by Osama al-Nujaifi, one of Iraq's three vice presidents and another one, Wataniya Alliance, led by Vice-President Ayad Allawi, a secular Shi’ia, who is in alliance with former Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Mutlak and the Speaker of the Iraqi Parliament Salim Jabouri.

After the failed attempt at Kurdish independence through a referendum in September 2017, the Kurds have become more divided and are unlikely to have an impact on the formation of the new government.

Following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the toppling of Saddam Hussein, the grossly incompetent American administrator Paul Bremer introduced a system that assured the Kurds are always given the post of President, while the Shi’ias get the Prime Minister’s job and the Sunnis are given the post of Speaker in the parliament. Bremer mistakenly believed that this system would prevent sectarian infighting. In fact it has had almost the opposite effect and has played into the hands of the Iranian mullahs who have exploited the on-going political turmoil to levy a stranglehold on Iraq. Choosing political leaders based on their sect or ethnicity instead of on their merits has had disastrous consequences for Iraq, where political corruption and ineptitude has left the Iraqi economy and infrastructure shattered.

Abadi now says that his country requires more than $100 billion to rebuild the major cities of Ramadi, Fallujah and Mosul, destroyed by the war against ISIS. He is holding out the begging bowl to the international community and has attracted significant pledges of aid from almost everyone except his immediate neighbour Iran, whose paramilitary forces have been largely responsible for much of the Iraqi destruction.

Abadi and other leading contenders for election on 12th May are promising to rebuild Iraq. But the Iraqi population have heard these pledges before. They have waited in vain for 15 years for basic electricity, water and sewerage services to be restored. Iraq boasts the world’s fifth largest proven oil reserves and its landmass covers a vast ocean of gas. It is one of the most fertile Middle Eastern countries and has plenty of water, with the two biggest rivers of the Middle East, the Tigris and the Euphrates, flowing through its territory.

But endemic corruption, poor governance and weak security have left the country’s infrastructure crumbling. Major cities like Baghdad often have less than 2 hours of electricity supply daily. On-going power-cuts and water shortages leave Iraqis boiling with rage. They watch in dismay as the same old faces take power again and again and do nothing but fill their own pockets. Only 20% of the candidates registered for Saturday’s general election are newcomers, so it doesn’t look as if Iraq’s misery will end anytime soon. Even Grand Ayatollah Sistani has joined the fray by condemning past electoral experiments as failures, aiming his criticism at those who were elected or appointed to high positions in the government, whom, he says, abused their power and took part in spreading corruption and squandering public money. He is refusing to endorse any candidate.

The concept of liberty for ordinary Iraqis has become almost as rare as the concept of peace. Corruption has brought Iraq to its knees and only a major onslaught against the criminal political classes will have any chance of restoring order.

Foreign interference has also had a destructive role in the country. Since 2003, Iran has been able to exert significant influence in Iraq and is now pumping money into the Iraqi elections to aid its favoured candidates like Hadi Al-Ameri, leader of the Badr Organization from the Fatah (Conquest) Coalition in alliance with Hashd, the Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias and Nouri al-Maliki.

Iran’s ability to sway the outcome of the Iraqi elections as part of its wider strategy of destabilising the Middle East should be of deep concern to the West. Iranian hegemony in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq is a threat not only to peace in the Middle East, but also to world peace. Iranian meddling, particularly by the terrorist Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), in virtually every aspect of Iraq’s political, economic and security structures, aided and abetted by years of wrong-headed American policies, will make it almost impossible to hold a free and fair election. The only way to ensure free, fair and democratic Iraqi elections is to oust the Iranians from Iraq and end their deadly stranglehold. The US Administration’s new recognition of Iran as the Godfather of international terror and the main sponsor of conflict in the Middle East is at least a promising start.

Struan Stevenson

President, European Iraqi Freedom Association (EIFA)

Struan Stevenson was a member of the European Parliament representing Scotland (1999-2014), president of the Parliament's Delegation for Relations with Iraq (2009-14) and chairman of Friends of a Free Iran Intergroup (2004-14). He is an international lecturer on the Middle East and is also coordinator of Campaign for Iran Change.  

ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – Influential Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has called on Kurds to participate in the Iraqi parliamentary election with “strength and determination.”

“They have to participate with strength and determination, and the voice of the Kurds must triumph over the injustice and corruption same with the Shias and the Sunnis,” Sadr said in response to a question on his website about the participation of the Kurds and the Sunnis.

Kurdish support for the fateful election next week will be crucial in the formation of a new Iraqi government, and that support will be of special importance to the new prime minister.

Corruption and mismanagement have become critical issues in Iraq after the sharp fall in oil prices in 2014, reducing the state budget at a time when additional income is needed to pay for the cost of the war against the Islamic State (IS).

Despite the protests, including those led by Sadr, corruption continues to deplete government resources as it struggles to cope with a rise in spending due to the cost of the war against IS and the challenges of rebuilding cities freed from the extremist group’s grip.

“All minorities must participate firmly and resolutely in the election,” Sadr said, referring to Christians and other ethnic components.

Over 24 million Iraqis are entitled to participate in the ballot to elect 329 deputies in Parliament from about 7,000 candidates in all governorates.

Sadr’s alliance and a section of the Communist party form a coalition partaking in the upcoming parliamentary election. This will be the first election after the defeat of IS, the second after the US forces’ withdrawal from Iraq, and the fourth since 2003.

Sadr’s alliance currently holds 34 seats in Parliament giving him considerable influence in the capital and the predominately Shia southern provinces of Iraq.

The winner will face an arduous task of rebuilding the war-ravaged country and battling the rampant corruption borne by the management of Iraq’s oil revenue.

An estimated $100 billion is required to rebuild the country’s infrastructure, housing, and commercial interests ruined by three years of war.

Source: Kurdistan 24

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