Shiite cleric who fought US strengthens power in Iraq election

BAGHDAD – Supporters of a Shiite cleric whose fighters fought US forces during the occupation made the biggest gains in Iraq’s parliamentary elections, boosting his ability to determine whether the country is moving further from orbit American.

As independent candidates won a few seats for the first time in a political landscape altered by anti-government protests, it became increasingly clear as the ballots were counted on Monday that the clear winner of the vote Sunday was Sairoun, the political movement loyal to the religious Muqtada. al-Sadr.

Sairoun won up to 20 additional seats in parliament, consolidating his status as the largest bloc in the chamber and giving the mercurial cleric an even more decisive vote on the country’s next prime minister.

The result could further complicate Iraq’s challenge in diplomatic leadership between the United States and Iran, adversaries who both view Iraq as vital to their interests. Pro-Iranian militias have played an increased role in Iraq since the rise of Islamic State in 2014 and have launched attacks against US interests in the country.

Mr. al-Sadr had a difficult relationship with Iran, where he continued his religious studies. Regarding the United States, he and his associates refused to meet with American officials.

He and Iranian leaders shared similar goals when his fighters fought American forces after 2003. But Mr. Sadr is considered an Iraqi nationalist, an identity that has at times brought him into conflict with Iran – a country that ‘he can’t afford to upset.

In a speech on Monday evening, al-Sadr said all embassies are welcome in Iraq as long as they do not interfere in Iraqi affairs or the formation of a government. The cleric also implicitly criticized the militias supported by Iran, some of which define themselves as “the resistance”.

“Even if those who claim resistance or whatever, it is time for the people to live in peace, without occupation, without terrorism, without militias and without kidnapping,” he said in a speech broadcast on state television . “Today is the day of the people’s victory against occupation, normalization, militias, poverty and slavery,” he said, apparently referring to the normalization of ties with Israel.

“He is using sharp language against Iran and resistance groups affiliated with Iran,” said Gheis Ghoreishi, a political analyst who advised the Iranian foreign ministry on Iraq, speaking of the victory speech of Mr. Sadr in Clubhouse, an online discussion group. “There is a real lack of trust and grievances between Sadr and Iran.”

In Baghdad on Monday evening, young men piled into vans, waving flags, playing celebratory songs and carrying pictures of Mr. Sadr as they roamed the streets of the capital.

Election officials announced preliminary results Monday evening and official results are expected later this week. With 94% of the vote counted, election officials said the turnout was 41% – a record that reflects Iraqis’ deep contempt for politicians and government leaders who have made Iraq one of the most corrupt countries in the world.

Activists who were part of the anti-government protests that toppled the Iraqi government in 2019 won up to a dozen seats, running for the first time in this election, called a year earlier to respond to demands for changes in the system Iraqi politics.

This system, in which senior government positions are divided by political leaders along sectarian and ethnic lines, remains unchanged. But a new electoral law loosened the grip of the big political blocs and made it easier for independent candidates and small parties to win seats.

Preliminary results also showed that the political bloc led by former Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki appeared to be the second biggest winner as parties linked to pro-Iran militias lost ground.

Mr. al-Maliki, a Shiite, garnered widespread support for sending Iraqi government troops to break the hold of militias over the southern Iraqi city of Basra in 2008. But he was later blamed for a raid in the sectarianism that helped foster the rise of the Islamic State.

But it was the Sadrists who were the big winners on Sunday.

“Of course I voted for the Sadrist bloc,” said Haider Tahseen Ali, 20, standing outside the small grocery store where he works in Sadr City, a sprawling area of ​​Baghdad and a stronghold of Mr. al’s base. -Sadr.

Mr. al-Sadr has taken on the religious legacy of his revered father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, who was killed by Saddam Hussein’s regime in 1999.

“Even if he ordered us to throw ourselves from the roofs of our houses, I would throw myself,” said Abbas Radhi, an election worker supervising one of the polling stations in Sadr City, referring to Mr. al -Sadr.

The cleric twice said in the run-up to the vote that he was withdrawing his movement from the electoral process before backing down and declaring that the next prime minister should come from the Sadrist ranks. But Mr. al-Sadr seems open to negotiations over who should lead Iraq.

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, an independent who has tried to balance Iraqi relations between the United States and Iran, and has made it clear that he wants to become prime minister again, will need Sadrist’s support.

As Shiite parties dominate Iraqi politics, the largest Kurdish faction, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, as well as a Sunni faction led by the Speaker of Parliament, Mohamed al-Halbousi, have also emerged with enough seats to play a role in choosing the next prime minister.

The low turnout was a reflection of the contempt for Iraqi politicians, especially among young voters who face a future that offers few opportunities. Sixty percent of the Iraqi population is under 25.

“Obviously, people are even more disappointed with political parties and the political process,” said Farhad Alaaldin, head of the Iraqi Advisory Council, a research group in Baghdad. “People don’t believe this election would bring about a change, and that’s why they didn’t bother to vote. “

The disillusion extends from a deeply corrupt and dysfunctional government to parliamentarians themselves. President Barham Salih said about $ 150 billion obtained through corruption had been smuggled out of Iraq since 2003.

The organization of the election, with new biometric voting cards and electronic transmission systems designed to deter widespread fraud seen in previous elections, was declared by international observers to meet international criteria.

But some organizations that deployed observers during the vote warned that the low turnout meant a limited public mandate for the new government.

“In the aftermath of the elections, the low turnout may raise questions about the legitimacy of the government,” said Sarah Hepp, director of Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, a political foundation funded by the German government.

Two years ago, the protest movement spread from southern Iraq to Baghdad when thousands of young people took to the streets to demand jobs, public services and an end to a corrupt political system.

In a challenge to neighboring Iran, they also demanded an end to Iranian influence in Iraq. Iranian proxy militias are now part of Iraq’s official security forces but in many cases do not respond to the Iraqi government and are accused of assassinations and disappearances for which they are never held accountable.

Security forces and militiamen have killed more than 600 unarmed protesters since the October 2019 protests, according to human rights groups.

One of the main contestants, Alaa al-Rikabi, easily won a seat in the southern city of Nasiriya. Mr al-Rikabi said the movement’s main goal was to move protests from the streets to parliament, where he said he and some of the other new lawmakers would demand changes.

“My people don’t have enough hospitals, not enough health services. A lot of my people are below the poverty line, ”he said in an interview in August. “Most of them say they can’t feed their children, they can’t educate their sons and daughters.”

Jaafar al-Waely, Falih Hassan and Nermeen al-Mufti contributed reporting from Baghdad. Farnaz Fassihi contributed from New York.


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