US in contact with ex-foe Al-Sadr after shock win in Iraq poll

If Moqtada Al-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. (Reuters)
Updated 22 May 2018
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US in contact with ex-foe Al-Sadr after shock win in Iraq poll

  • Sadr’s surprise win puts Washington in an awkward position. His Mehdi Army militia staged violent uprisings against US troops after Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003.
  • Washington and Sadr, an Iraqi nationalist, are both opposed to Iran’s deep influence in Iraq, where it arms, trains and funds Shiite militias and nurtures close ties with many politicians.

BAGHDAD: The United States has contacted members of a political bloc headed by former foe Moqtada Al-Sadr after his parliamentary election victory put the Shiite 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 US 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 Shiite 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.
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 Shiite 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 Shiites 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.


Erdogan faces biggest challenge in tight Turkey polls

Updated 15 min 31 sec ago
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Erdogan faces biggest challenge in tight Turkey polls

ANKARA: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday faces the biggest ballot box challenge of his 15-year grip on Turkey, seeking to overcome a revitalized opposition against the background of an increasingly troubled economy.
A self-styled heavyweight champion of campaigning, Erdogan has won successive elections since his Islamic-rooted ruling party came to power in 2002, transforming Turkey with growth-orientated economic policies, religious conservatism and an assertive stance abroad.
But he appears to have met some kind of match in his main presidential rival Muharrem Ince, a fiery orator from the left of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) who has been unafraid to challenge Erdogan on his own terms.
The intrigue is deepened by the holding of presidential and parliamentary elections on the same day under controversial constitutional changes spearheaded by Erdogan which will hand the new Turkish president enhanced powers and scrap the office of prime minister.
The vote takes place almost two years after the failed coup aimed at ousting Erdogan from power, a watershed in its modern history which prompted Turkey to launch the biggest purge of recent times under a state of emergency that remains in place.
Some 55,000 people have been arrested in a crackdown whose magnitude has sparked major tensions with Ankara’s Western allies.
Only a knockout first round victory for Erdogan and a strong parliamentary majority for his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) will be seen as an unequivocal victory for the Turkish leader.
And many analysts believe Ince can force a second round on July 8, while AKP risks losing its parliamentary majority in the face of an unprecedented alliance between four opposition parties.
“This is not the classical opposition that he has been facing for 15 years and which he more or less succeeded in managing and marginalizing,” said Elize Massicard of the French National Center for Scientific Research.
“It’s a new political dynamic that has grown in magnitude,” she said.
The opposition was already boosted by the relatively narrow victory of the “Yes” campaign in the April 2017 referendum on the constitutional changes.
Most opinion polls — to be treated with caution in Turkey — suggest Erdogan will fall short of 50 percent in the first round.
Erdogan remains by far Turkey’s most popular politician and inspires sometimes near-fanatical support in the Anatolian interior, where he is credited with transforming lives through greater economic prosperity.
“A great Turkey needs a strong leader,” says the slogan on election posters of Erdogan plastered across Turkey.
But the elections come at a time when Turkey is undergoing one of its rockiest recent economic patches despite high growth, with inflation surging to 12.15 percent and the lira losing 20 percent against the dollar this year.
Erdogan brought the elections forward from November 2019 in what many analysts saw as a bid to have them over with before the economy nosedived.
The opposition has sought to play on signs of Erdogan fatigue and also echoed Western concerns that freedom of expression has declined drastically under his rule.
For the first time, Erdogan has been forced to react in the election campaign as the opposition set the pace.
He had to deny quickly when Ince accused him of meeting the alleged architect of the 2016 failed coup, Fethullah Gulen. Erdogan promised to lift Turkey’s two-year state of emergency only after the CHP had vowed the same.
“The opposition is able to frame the debate in the election and this is a new thing for Turkish politics,” Asli Aydintasbas, fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) said.
“A party that has been in power for so long is, in an economic downturn, going to experience a loss (in support) and lose its hegemony over politics,” she added.
While the CHP sees itself as the guardian of a secular and united Turkey, Ince has also sought to win the support of Turkey’s Kurdish minority who make up around a fifth of the electorate.
A rally held by Ince in the Kurdish stronghold of Diyarbakir in the southeast attracted considerable attention. “A president for everyone,” reads his election slogan, over a picture of the affably smiling former physics teacher.
The opposition, which argues that Erdogan has been given a wildly disproportionate amount of media airtime in the campaign, has sometimes resorted to creative and even humorous campaign methods.
The Iyi (Good) Party of Meral Aksener, once seen as a major player but lately eclipsed by Ince, put out humorous messages on Google ads and even devised a computer game where light bulbs — the AKP symbol — get destroyed.
Selahattin Demirtas, the candidate of the pro-Kurdish Peoples Democratic Party (HDP), has campaigned from his prison cell following his jailing in November 2016. He made an election speech on speaker phone through his wife’s mobile but was allowed give a brief election broadcast on state TV, albeit from prison.