Oct 13, 2021 - World

Iraq elections boost nationalist al-Sadr at expense of pro-Iran bloc

Al-Sadr supporters celebrate in Baghdad. Photo: Ayman Yaqoob/Anadolu Agency via Getty

Abu Dhabi — Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has emerged from Sunday's parliamentary elections as the leading figure in Iraqi politics.

Why it matters: Al-Sadr has positioned himself as a bulwark against foreign interference in Iraq. He has a history of violent opposition to U.S. forces in the country but has more recently proved adept at presenting himself to regional and international partners as a more palatable alternative to pro-Iranian rivals.

  • He is arguably the most successful opportunist of the post-Saddam Hussein era, rising over the last 18 years from relative obscurity to nationalist kingmaker.

The state of play: Turnout is estimated at just 41% of registered voters, and would be lower still if all eligible voters were included. Millions chose to boycott, and young Iraqis are particularly disillusioned.

  • The vote had been brought forward after mass protests against corruption, poor public services and Tehran’s interference in Iraqi affairs.

Breaking it down: Preliminary results showed al-Sadr's bloc winning at least 73 seats in the 329-member parliament.

  • The Iran-aligned Fatah Alliance, made up of Shiite militias, won just 14 seats, down from 48 in 2018. That could be viewed as a rejection of Iranian influence and of the militias' violent opposition to the protests. The head of the alliance rejected the results.
  • Al-Sadr is a rival of the Fatah Alliance and positions himself in opposition to Iran’s influence over the Shiite political class. But Nouri al-Maliki, the Iran-aligned former prime minister, also had a strong performance, complicating the prospects for a Shiite alliance.
  • A coalition led by Sunni parliamentary speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi won 38 seats, making it potentially the second-largest bloc in parliament. Kurdish parties won 61 seats.

What’s next: Official final results are also still pending with votes still to be counted and seats to be determined. Although this is unlikely to change al-Sadr’s position, the delay increases the already charged atmosphere. 

  • There is a real risk of intra-Shiite tensions spilling into violence on the streets as groups jockey amid negotiations to form a government and choose a prime minister, which could take several months.
  • Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi did not run in the elections, though he could still potentially retain his job. Under his leadership, Iraq has taken on a mediator role for the region, and the choice of prime minister will influence whether that continues.

Of note: The Iraqi government has denied reports that the commander of Iran's IRGC Quds Force, Esmail Qaani, made a secret visit to Baghdad on Monday. Tehran will be keen to massage any disputes between parties loyal to it.

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