3 άρθρα από το al-monitor για την νέα ιρακινή "πλειοψηφία" του Muqtada al-Sadr
Can Iraq's Sadr swing nonsectarian government?
After the Sairoon (On the Move) Alliance emerged victorious in the May 12 Iraqi elections, its leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, has been seeking meetings with the leaders of the other top-vote-getting alliances to discuss the possibility of forming the largest bloc in the new parliament and ultimately form the new Cabinet.
At a May 19 joint press conference after talks with Sadr, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, whose Al-Nasr (Victory) Alliance came in third, said, “During our meeting, we agreed to work together and with other parties to expedite the process of forming a new Iraqi government.” A few days later, on May 22, Al-Nasr spokesman Hussein al-Adeli said Abadi had reached an agreement with Sadr on a map for forming a new government. Abadi himself, in his weekly press conference the same day, said his coalition was close to reaching an understanding with the Sairoon Alliance “to form a strong technocratic government.”
In a May 20 meeting with Hadi al-Amiri, leader of the second-place Fatah Alliance, consisting of the political wings of the pro-Iran militias of the Popular Mobilization Units, Sadr had said, “The process of government formation must be a national decision, and importantly, must include the participation of all the winning blocs along a national path.” Sadr appeared to select the phrasing “national decision” and “national path” especially for Amiri, who had days earlier met in Baghdad with Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iran's Quds Force, in an attempt to form a pro-Iranian parliamentary bloc.
Sadr also held talks with Ammar al-Hakim, leader of the Hikma Alliance, on May 21 and spoke of the importance of forming the upcoming government in a way that ensures “fixing the path of the political process to suit the aspirations of the Iraqi people who reject sectarianism and corruption.”
Sadr also met May 21 with Iyad al-Allawi, leader of the predominantly Sunni Al-Wataniyah Alliance, and two days earlier had received a letter from Kosrat Rasoul Ali, first deputy for the secretary-general of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, in line with discussions on potential alliances requiring Sunni and Kurdish participation alongside the Shiite majority to form a government.
After failing to assemble a parliamentary bloc under Iranian auspices consisting of the four largest Shiite lists — the State of Law Coalition and the Al-Nasr, Hikma and Fatah Alliances — Iranian Ambassador to Iraq Iraj Masjedi attempted to lure Sadr to his side to prevent the formation of an anti-Iran government. Masjedi told Iran's Al-Alam TV May 21, “Iran has constructive relations with all parties, blocs and coalitions that won the majority of parliamentary seats in the fourth elections.”
Masjedi also denied rumors of a dispute between the Iranian leadership and Sadr, saying, “Iran’s relations with Sadr are historical and deep-seated. The country had close relations with the martyrs Mohammed Baqr and Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr [Muqtada's uncle and father, respectively].” Masjedi added, “Iranian officials’ relations with Sadr are friendly and brotherly, and many of them, including Soleimani, appreciate Sadr greatly.”
In fact, Sadr’s father and Iranian officials were not friendly at all. His representative in Iran, Jaafar al-Sadr, son of Mohammad Baqr, was arrested and his office shuttered in Qom in 1998. In addition, everything indicates that relations between Muqtada and Iran have gone downhill as well in recent years.
Sadr had made several statements critical of Iranian interference in Iraqi decision-making, and his alliance competed against the pro-Iran lists — Al-Fatah and the State of Law Coalition — in the elections. In the preceding years, Sadr’s supporters chanted slogans against Iran at protests calling for reform. Sadr, unlike his rivals Maliki and Amiri, has not met with Soleimani in recent years.
Sadr greeted a group of ambassadors from neighboring countries May 19 after his list's victory was confirmed. In attendance were the ambassadors of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, Turkey and Syria. Official Iranian websites, including Al-Alam's, criticized Sadr’s relations with Saudi Arabia and charged that Riyadh had been behind Iran's exclusion from the meeting.
Sadr insists that the largest parliamentary bloc include all Iraqi components, which would be unprecedented if successful. The largest parliamentary bloc has always consisted solely of Shiite parties, which then negotiated with Kurdish and Sunni blocs over forming the government.
On May 21, Sadr tweeted, “I am Muqtada. I am Shiite, Sunni, Christian, Saebean, Yazidi, Islamist, civil, Arab, Kurdish, Assyrian, Turkmen, Chaldean and Shabak. I am Iraqi. Do not expect me to side with any sect against the other to renew enmities and lead to our demise. We are headed toward a comprehensive Iraqi alliance.”
Al-Hayat newspaper on May 21 cited Iraqi sources close to Sadr discussing efforts to bring together Abadi, Allawi, Kurdistan Democratic Party leader Massoud Barzani and Sunni Al-Qarar Alliance leader Khamis al-Khanjar to explore forming the leading parliamentary bloc with all their parties’ participation. If Sadr succeeds, Iraq might overcome sectarian quotas in forming a government, and Iranian influence would dwindle with its political allies, Al-Fatah and the State of Law Coalition, excluded from the bloc.
Ali Mamouri is Al-Monitor's Iraq Pulse Editor and a researcher and writer who specializes in religion. He is a former teacher in Iranian universities and seminaries in Iran and Iraq. He has published several articles related to religious affairs in the two countries and societal transformations and sectarianism in the Middle East.
New Iraqi government will again require Iranian blessing
If Haider al-Abadi retains the Iraqi premiership, he will have done so with Iran’s blessing. Iran and Iraq have maintained good relations throughout Abadi’s tenure. Abadi owes Iran and the Popular Mobilization Units, including those backed by Tehran, for their decisive role in responding to the ill-fated Iraqi Kurdish referendum last year, a huge win for Abadi.
Abadi may not be the first choice among Iran’s leaders, but they have a well-established working relationship. Abadi also depends on Washington, but Tehran will likely be the last stop on the road to a new government in Iraq.
Expect Iran to ask for some shift in Iraqi statements toward the United States as its tax on a final deal. Given the more aggressive US approach to Iran’s "malign behavior," Tehran will be sure that the next Iraqi government makes a point — somehow, some way — that Baghdad will not be squarely in the American camp. Abadi, while seeking to preserve strong ties with the United States, has also said that Iraq should not be an arena for US-Iran conflict.
There's no question that the surprise showing of the Sadrist movement with 54 seats represents progress toward an independent Iraqi identity, including perhaps a more youthful demographic. In second place, however, came Iran’s preferred group, the Fatah Alliance, with 47 seats. Abadi’s Victory Alliance came in third with 42.
The Kurdistan Democratic Party, which received 25 seats, may see a comeback in Iraq depending on Iran’s good offices and some type of arrangement with Abadi. The Kurdistan Regional Government hosted a conference on economic relations with Iran a week before the Iraqi elections.
The politicking in Iraq is revealing the nuances in Muqtada al-Sadr’s positions toward both the United States and Iran. Ali Mamouri explains that Sadr “insists that he is independent, [and] is sending messages to both the United States and Iran that he will not adopt policies that threaten their interests inside Iraq.”
“In the past years, Sadr’s political behavior has varied,” he writes. “He has toned down the critical voice he once used against the United States. He has criticized the United States occasionally, but he hasn’t threatened the US presence in Iraq as part of the international coalition fighting the Islamic State. Sadr did not even hint at the possible formation of a military force outside the state to resist the United States, as he did in 2004 and 2008. The Mahdi Army has been completely disbanded.”
Mamouri adds, “In a phone call with a senior member in Sadr’s office in Najaf, Al-Monitor learned that Sadr is not willing to form or even support any forces against the US presence, but he will probably work through the Iraqi legislative system to legally expel all foreign forces, including the United States. The source who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity insisted that Sadr rejects using violence against US forces, as they are in Iraq by request of the Iraqi government.”
The oft-repeated enmity between Sadr and Iran may also be overstated, despite Sadr’s outreach to Saudi Arabia, as well as differences with Tehran over Syria. “Sadr does not have a military force fighting in Syria, unlike most Iraqi military factions loyal to Iran,” Mamouri continues. “The latter have been fighting inside Syria alongside President Bashar al-Assad’s regime for years now. Sadr, for his part, has opposed the presence of any Iraqi force outside of the country and criticized those defending Assad’s regime, calling on the Syrian president to step down to pave the way for a democracy in Syria.”
Sadr has already met with Fatah Alliance leader Hadi al-Amiri and Dhiaa al-Asadi, the director of Sadr's political office, “said in a televised interview on al-Mayadeen channel, 'We have a steady relationship with Iran,' stressing that the 'Sadrist movement and its partners will not yield to the US will.' Iranian Ambassador Iraj Masjedi did not attend the meeting held between the region’s ambassadors and Sadr last week. Asadi said Sadr’s office sent an invitation to the Iranian ambassador in Baghdad, but he apologized and said he couldn’t make it. Masjedi said, 'The relations between Iranian officials and Sadr are friendly and brotherly. Many of those officials, including Qasem Soleimani, harbor great feelings of friendship for Sadr.'”
Iran is staking its claim as the final arbiter of government formation and influence in both Iraq and Lebanon in order to thwart US pressure. In Lebanon, Hezbollah’s role will come under even greater scrutiny, not only as a result of US sanctions, but also the lag in international donor funds, which are conditioned on reforms that will largely depend on the role and policies of Hezbollah, backed by Iran.
Another barometer of US pressure on Iran will be whether China, the world’s largest oil importer, insists its oil purchases be paid in yuan as a means to undercut US sanctions. This could all be part of the broader negotiations in US-China trade or a potential major crack in the US sanctions regime.
Another concern for the Trump administration could be French President Emmanuel Macron's call for “European financial sovereignty” while seated with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum May 25. Macron may be seeking to bless Russia as the "go-to" mediator between Israel and Iran, as we reported here two weeks ago, in order to re-establish some Eureopean Union influence given the more aggressive US approach to Iran.
Iraq's Sadr sends positive sign to both the US and Iran
The victory of the Sairoon Alliance, headed by Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, in the recent Iraqi elections raised questions in the United States and Iran about the relations of the next Iraqi government with their respective countries, which both enjoy wide influence in Iraq.
The United States and Iran are closely following the negotiations for the formation of the next Iraqi government. Both parties fear that a government where Sadr enjoys the majority would affect Iranian and US influence in the country — albeit at various degrees.
Dhiaa al-Asadi, the director of Sadr's political office, said on May 23 that US officials contacted the Sairoon Alliance through mediators. They spoke about the Sadrist movement’s position toward the United States in case the alliance accedes to power.
“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 re-employ them? Are they going to attack American forces in Iraq?” Asadi said, citing the talks between the alliance and US officials.
Asadi noted that the Mahdi Army was disbanded in 2008, and the Sadrist movement does not intend to re-establish it. “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,” Asadi told Reuters.
Asadi’s statement carries a positive message that the Sadrist movement, if it comes to power, will seek to overcome its enmity toward the United States. This could mean that in the Iraqi government Sadr will not be the same man who led his political party outside of the government.
In the past years, Sadr’s political behavior has varied. He has toned down the critical voice he once used against the United States. He has criticized the United States occasionally, but he hasn’t threatened the US presence in Iraq as part of the international coalition fighting the Islamic State. Sadr did not even hint at the possible formation of a military force outside the state to resist the United States, as he did in 2004 and 2008. The Mahdi Army has been completely disbanded.
In a phone call with a senior member in Sadr’s office in Najaf, Al-Monitor learned that Sadr is not willing to form or even support any forces against the US presence, but he will probably work through the Iraqi legislative system to legally expel all foreign forces, including the United States. The source who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity insisted that Sadr rejects using violence against US forces, as they are in Iraq by request of the Iraqi government.
The number of US troops in Iraq is estimated at around 7,000 stationed in various military bases across the country, namely in Sunni-majority areas in northern and western Iraq. The Pentagon, however, has openly declared the presence of 2,500 soldiers in Iraq. Although IS has been completely expelled from Iraqi territories, the United States has yet to withdraw its forces from Iraq. There are signs that US troops will remain in the country for years to come. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said back in February that Iraq needs the long-term presence of foreign forces, especially to ensure aerial cover. Sadr has not opposed these statements.
All that he will not ado
Also, Sadr does not have a military force fighting in Syria, unlike most Iraqi military factions loyal to Iran. The latter have been fighting inside Syria alongside President Bashar al-Assad’s regime for years now. Sadr, for his part, has opposed the presence of any Iraqi force outside of the country and criticized those defending Assad’s regime, calling on the Syrian president to step down to pave the way for a democracy in Syria.
Sadr also established close and positive relations with US allies in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Jordan. He paid visits to Saudi Arabia and the UAE last year. On May 24, when Sadr was in Baghdad, he received a phone call from prominent Sunni businessmen Khamis al-Khanjar, who heads and supports the Sunni Iraqi Decision Alliance, which won 11 seats in the elections. Khanjar, who is known for his anti-Iranian positions, arrived at the Iraqi capital on May 24, after an eight-year absence.
Meanwhile, it seems the United States gave its blessing for the Sadrist movement to accede to power. US State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said May 22, “We will work with whoever the Iraqi government and the people of Iraq decide to elect into its government.”
Regarding Iran, Asadi said in a televised interview on al-Mayadeen channel, “We have a steady relationship with Iran,” stressing that the “Sadrist movement and its partners will not yield to the US will.”
Iranian Ambassador Iraj Masjedi did not attend the meeting held between the region’s ambassadors and Sadr last week. Asadi said Sadr’s office sent an invitation to the Iranian ambassador in Baghdad, but he apologized and said he couldn’t make it.
Masjedi said, “The relations between Iranian officials and Sadr are friendly and brotherly. Many of those officials, including Qasem Soleimani, harbor great feelings of friendship for Sadr.”
Despite these general and diplomatic statements, the Iranians are not remaining silent about Sadr’s move toward forming the government. As Sadr announced on May 24 the completion of the final touches of forming the government, noting that it is "an authentic Iraqi government" with no any foreign interferences, Masjedi said in a meeting with a delegation from the Kurdistan Democratic Party that it is too early to talk about the formation of the Iraqi government. According to Masjedi, the Iraqi political forces are still negotiating, and it is important to not be in a hurry to form the new government.
In an attempt to form a rival alliance to Sadr’s, head of the pro-Iranian Fatah coalition Hadi al-Amiri hosted a meeting on May 24 with head of the State of Law coalition Nouri al-Maliki and a delegation from the two main Kurdish parties — the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.
All of these signs show that Sadr, who insists that he is independent, is sending messages to both the United States and Iran that he will not adopt policies that threaten their interests inside Iraq. But will the United States and Iran accept this kind of change in Sadr’s positions, or will they ask him for guarantees to protect their interests? The answer depends on whether the United States or Iran will remain neutral in the negotiations for the formation of Iraq’s next government or at least not oppose Sadr rising into the government.
Iran is not being silent about Sadr’s move toward forming the new government, and the United States has yet to decide whether to put limits on Iran’s influence in Iraq by supporting Sadr, but at the same time, allow his anti-US movement to come to the power.
Ali Mamouri is Al-Monitor's Iraq Pulse Editor and a researcher and writer who specializes in religion. He is a former teacher in Iranian universities and seminaries in Iran and Iraq. He has published several articles related to religious affairs in the two countries and societal transformations and sectarianism in the Middle Eas