Al-Sadr’s victory a symptom of failing Iraqi political system

Al-Sadr’s victory a symptom of failing Iraqi political system

The biggest strategic blunder of the US invasion of Iraq was not upsetting the regional balance of power but rather the dismantling of the Iraqi state. Haphazardly issued in a US directive only 60 days prior to the invasion, the process of De-Baathification led to the dismissal of an estimated 100,000 civil servants, doctors and teachers, the complete dissolution of the Iraqi army and government incompetence in the absence of experienced technocrats. This caused a rapid deterioration in the security of the country, allowed unemployment to reach as high as 40 percent and created a vacuum for foreign powers to become key power brokers in Iraq. Until the elections held last week, the post-invasion cadre of Iraqi politicians had ceded decision-making to Tehran. However, following a dramatic result at ballot boxes across the country, a coalition headed by the populist cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr has now emerged as the country’s key power broker.

Since 2003, Iran and the US have dominated Iraqi affairs, but the recent election results show weariness with the status quo as Iraqis attempt to reassert their identity and independence. The biggest number of parliamentary seats went to Sairoon, a coalition of Sadrists, Sunni businessmen and communists, whose anti-American and nationalist track record illustrates a triumph of Arabism over sectarian divisions. Al-Sadr’s victory is remarkable given that his fearsome Mahdi Army militia led two campaigns against US forces and was believed to be responsible for the killing of thousands of Sunni Muslims during the sectarian violence that plagued Iraq in 2006 and 2007.

Indeed it was the successive failures of the Iraqi government that allowed him to successfully reinvent himself as a nationalist driving an anti-corruption agenda. The victory for Al-Sadr’s movement is a slap in the face for Iraq’s ruling establishment, as Iraqis have demanded effective government in the wake of an extremist insurgency that has crippled the country. The failures of the incumbent government allowed Al-Sadr to campaign effectively on an “Iraq first” message, thus allowing him to reach out beyond sectarian divides, with voting patterns showing his biggest areas of support were in mixed communities. Uncollected rubbish and open sewers in the sweltering heat have pushed Iraqis into the arms of Al-Sadr, especially since more than two million Iraqis are internally displaced and Daesh militants continue to mount deadly attacks, despite having lost territorial control. With the Iraqi government struggling to find the $100 billion needed to rebuild the country, the factors that led to the rise of Daesh’s “caliphate” project persist. Government structures remain weak and suffer corruption at every level, while the sluggish economy is hugely inefficient and overly reliant on oil windfalls.

Despite making significant gains, Al-Sadr is not at liberty to dictate Iraq’s political future.

Zaid M. Belbagi

Despite the nationalist platitudes of Al-Sadr’s movement, Iraqis would do well to recall that is was to Iran that he fled and remained in self-imposed exile. It was his supporters amongst the dispossessed of Baghdad’s Sadr City who operated sectarian death squads just short of a decade ago. With Iran increasingly faced with internal challenges, and the largesse with which it had funded its foreign adventures ever-shrinking, Al-Sadr’s volte-face is incredibly opportunistic. It was his Mahdi Army that played a key role in the reappointment of the incredibly divisive Nouri Al-Maliki in 2011. Though having ostensibly rebranded as a democrat, it was only in 2016 that his supporters stormed parliament in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone when the country’s main political factions resisted their demands. Nothing is as it seems with Al-Sadr and it remains to be seen how much his Istiqama party (Integrity) intends to live up to its name. 

Despite making significant gains, Al-Sadr is not at liberty to dictate Iraq’s political future. His election lead was narrow, with his 54 seats closely followed by 47 seats for a coalition of Shiite parties and a further 42 seats won by the US favorite, Prime Minister Haider Abadi. With 165 needed to form a governing majority, there is the very real prospect of months of jockeying for power; time enough for Iraq’s ethnic, sectarian and regional differences to resurface as the key political forces in the country.

Iraqis will gain little from a period of sustained division and, with significant accusations of fraud now surrounding the election, it will be even harder for a new government to claim legitimacy. Further still, the election that has been heralded as a triumph for democracy in the region was in reality a reflection of the apathy Iraqis have for their political institutions. With voter turnout at 44 percent — a record low (some 40 percent less than in 2005) — the sense of disillusionment with the ruling establishment is clear. In this context, the success of an infamous militia leader seems more like the product of a failing political system as opposed to a symbol of the maturity of Iraq’s post-invasion experience of democracy.

  • Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid
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