The political coalition that won the most seats in the Iraqi parliamentary election is led by Muqtada al-Sadr. He has a past that seems to put him at odds with both the U.S. and Iran. This Shia cleric has been held responsible for the deaths of U.S. troops, but he is also against the increasing influence of Iran in Iraq.
Al-Sadr campaigned on an anti-corruption platform, has allied with the Communist Party, and enjoyed a wave of populist sentiment that contributed to his victory. A long-time foe of American influence in Iraq, he appears to be equally against Iran’s increasing political influence in Iraq.
It must be noted that al-Sadr is going to have to reach out to other blocs to form a governing alliance, as he does not have a majority of the seats in parliament. While Iraqis have celebrated the removal of ISIS fighters from the major cities in their country, multiple complaints remain. These are focused on the struggling economy and an infrastructure that is crumbling and dealing with frequent power outages. Reconstruction is slow and government services are limited to non-existent.
Corruption is also a big issue and one that Iraqis blame for the inability of the government to translate the wealth of Iraq’s natural resources into a better life for all of its citizens.
However, al-Sadr has a past that makes him a polarizing figure on the international stage. Years ago, al-Sadr cultivated a strong alliance with the Iranian regime. The mullahs saw an opportunity to supplant the American influence in Iraq, and so they supplied him with weapons and support, with the idea that the regime would be able to impact the future of Iraq.
Now both Washington and Tehran are trying to influence events in Iraq, seeing a complex and drawn-out battle to create a coalition government. Al-Sadr made a point to distance himself from pro-Iranian blocs, as well as his former patrons in Iran. What is interesting is that al-Sadr has pointed out that Iran’s influence in Iraq is a destabilizing force.
As Iran has tried to increase its influence throughout the region, it is clear that some countries and leaders are trying to fight back. While there is no guarantee that al-Sadr’s bloc will be in power, there is evidence that the sectarian foundation of Iraq’s political system has been weakened and that helped al-Sadr in his transformation from a militant to a symbol of reform and Iraqi nationalism.
Al-Sadr, in his only interview before the election, listed several of his goals, including putting professionals into positions of power to build national institutions, instead of political insiders.
“We have tried the Islamists and they failed terribly,” said al-Sadr. “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.”
Now whether he can actually bring about this reform and keep the Iranian regime at bay is anyone’s guess. After all, there are many who see his current actions as a stance that is not here to stay. In the meantime, Western diplomats are trying to pull the curtain on past events and move forward in building relationships with al-Sadr.
For the Iranian regime, which is facing new sanctions from the United States and unrest throughout Iran, losing its influence in Iraq could be yet another example of how the regime is struggling to remain in power.