Challenges ahead as Al-Sadr, Abadi seek coalition deal

Challenges ahead as Al-Sadr, Abadi seek coalition deal

Following parliamentary elections this month, Iraqis are now waiting for an agreement that will lead to the formation of a new government. The most likely scenario — a deal between the bloc led by current Prime Minister Haider Abadi and the list loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr — would confirm the latter as the big winner of the May 12 election. Even though the former warlord did not run personally and ruled himself out as a potential prime minister, his new role as kingmaker gives momentum to his populist agenda.

There are some clear indications of what could be expected from an Abadi-Al-Sadr coalition government: Resistance to foreign interference, continuation of the efforts to overcome the sectarian divide, and a renewed focus on improving governance and service provision. But, beyond these general priorities, the attempt to reconcile Abadi’s timid, establishment-driven reformism with the unpredictable and evolving populism of the son of Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq Al-Sadr will be a challenge in itself. It will likely lead Abadi to push forward measures that will rock the boat in Baghdad, and the possible inclusion of Al-Fatah in the coalition will only render the governing arrangement more complex. 

According to Iraq experts, the low turnout at the elections — just under 45 percent of the electorate turned out — can be put down to voter concerns over corruption, government dysfunction, and disillusionment with the political class. Al-Sadr’s Sairoon list captured 54 of the overall 329 parliamentary seats, while Abadi’s Al-Nasr coalition came third with 42 seats, behind the Al-Fatah bloc led by Iran-aligned militia leader Hadi Al-Amiri (47 seats). 

Abadi and Al-Sadr campaigned for an Iraqi government that can overcome sectarian divides and maintain its independence from foreign influence, and both opened the door to a rapprochement with Iraq’s Sunni neighbors. Abadi’s list won in Mosul, the Sunni stronghold still deeply scarred by Daesh but cognizant that the prime minister’s trans-sectarian approach is a far more palatable option than any of the alternatives. In July last year, Al-Sadr made a rare visit to Saudi Arabia — his first in over a decade — to meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and senior Saudi officials in Jeddah. 

It is perhaps a good sign of the vitality of Iraqi nationalist sentiment that the surprising result obtained by Al-Sadr’s bloc is largely seen as bad news for Washington and Tehran. This election had long threatened to institutionalize the Hezbollah model in Iraq, with Iran-backed leaders of the Popular Mobilization Units running for office, while the armed groups they led refused to disband, disarm or come under the control of the Iraqi army and security forces. 

There are reports of Iranian attempts, with the involvement of Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani, to form an alliance between the State of Law Coalition of former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, the equally pro-Iranian Al-Fatah and other blocs dominated by pro-Iranian militias. If successful, this could potentially undercut the joint Abadi-Al-Sadr efforts at government formation. Still, the ongoing negotiations between Al-Sadr’s Sairoon list and the Iran-funded Al-Fatah bloc, with a view to forming a government and nominating the prime minister, means Iran still has a chance of having a foothold in the next government. 

It is perhaps a good sign of the vitality of Iraqi nationalist sentiment that the surprising result obtained by Al-Sadr’s bloc is largely seen as bad news for Washington and Tehran.

Dr. Manuel Almeida

In the US, the electoral outcome was widely covered by the media as vexing. After all, Al-Sadr was a fierce and violent opponent of the American administration in the country following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. His Mahdi Army, later rebranded as Peace Companies, joined the fight against coalition forces. The Mahdi Army’s death squads were responsible for some of the worst barbarities during the chaos that ensued.

But the US media seems to be largely stuck to the old image of Al-Sadr as a radical preacher and anti-American warlord, failing to recognize how his thinking and approach have evolved and matured alongside the developments in Iraq. The withdrawal of US forces from Iraq saw Al-Sadr shift to a more moderate and conciliatory approach. When Daesh took over large swaths of Iraqi territory, his militia fought the radical group alongside the Iraqi army and US forces, while it also collaborated with local Sunni Popular Mobilization Units in Nineveh and Anbar provinces.

In August 2015, thousands took to Tahrir Square in Baghdad to protest against worsening economic conditions, corruption and the absence of basic services. Al-Sadr took note and was the most prominent Iraqi figure to stand behind the protesters. He became a vocal critic of the corruption that characterized day-to-day affairs within the Green Zone. 

A few days after this month’s vote, Al-Sadr expressed his wish for a secular, technocratic government to build national institutions that can stand above partisanship and sectarianism. Yet, as with every other populist figure, a question mark looms over Al-Sadr’s opportunism. To what extent he has instrumentalized widespread grievances among Iraqis to push forward his political agenda and whether he will respect the rules and institutions he is looking to reform are open questions. 

Like his father, who was a staunch critic of the brutal reign of Hussein and was most likely assassinated by the Baathists, Al-Sadr has been an oppositionist by definition. His Mahdi Army fought against the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority, he had a very tense relationship with Al-Maliki’s government and has been very critical of Baghdad’s elites and their vested interests.

The cleric also heads the Sadrist Movement, a huge apparatus comprising political, military, religious and social arms. An effort to truly modernize Iraq’s institutions would eventually have to lead to a reform of the movement and the disbandment of its military wing. 

The Sairoon bloc is a result of Al-Sadr’s alliance with the Iraqi Communist Party, but it represents a far wider set of groups and interests. Apart from Al-Sadr’s traditional power base of the poor and urban Shiite working class, the preacher has also appealed to secularists, liberals and Sunni businessmen as the best hope for genuine reform. 

  • Dr. Manuel Almeida is a political analyst and consultant focusing on the Middle East. He is the former editor of the English online edition of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. Twitter: @_ManuelAlmeida
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view