BAGHDAD: A surprise alliance between the winners of Iraq’s election appears to reflect manoeuvering by neighboring Iran to form a broad Shiite coalition as it scrambles to protect its influence.
When nationalist cleric Moqtada Sadr’s bloc scooped the most seats at May’s poll it was seen as a blow for Tehran, long the dominant foreign player in conflict-hit Iraq.
Shiite firebrand Sadr had railed against both the influence of Iran and the United States, even drawing closer to Tehran’s arch-foe Saudi Arabia as he insisted Iraqis should run their own affairs.
So an announcement on Tuesday that he was linking up with the pro-Iranian former fighters Hadi Al-Ameri who finished second at the election was a shock to Iraq’s political class.
Insiders said the unlikely tie-up to try to form a new government, came after Iran decided that if it couldn’t beat Sadr, then it might be better to seek to join him.
In the immediate aftermath of the vote, Tehran had launched a political offensive to try to unite its allies and block Sadr’s path to power.
But Iran changed tack on realizing pushing the popular cleric aside was too problematic, and instead sought to include Sadr in a Shiite alliance broad enough to neutralize his influence.
At a meeting Sunday with Ameri and former premier Nuri Al-Maliki at Iran’s embassy in Baghdad, top emissaries from Tehran apparently endorsed a link-up with Sadr as the lesser of two evils.
“Dismissing Moqtada Sadr could allow him to assemble other groups and increase the criticism levelled at Iran’s role in Iraq,” said a source close to participants of the meeting.
The gathering involved influential Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and Mojtaba Khamenei, son of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Soleimani used the opportunity to call for “a strong government, far from American and Saudi pressure and from foreign interference,” the same source told AFP.
If the broad Shiite alliance gets off the ground Iran will be “the first to support the next government in Iraq,” Soleimani was quote as saying.
Ahmad Assadi, spokesman for Ameri’s Conquest Alliance, said it was natural that outside powers were interested in what was happening in Iraq.
Developments in the country are “important for neighboring countries and great powers, especially Iran and the US,” he told AFP.
Iran has become the major player since the US-led invasion of 2003, while the Americans led a coalition to oust Daesh group last year.
As the coalition government materializes, three candidates have emerged for the post of prime minister.
They are outgoing premier Haider Al-Abadi, his interior minister Qassem Al-Araji who is close to Ameri, and Mohammad Al-Sudani, a former rights minister under Maliki.
“There will be other candidates but the Shiite alliance must choose two who will be put to a vote by the new parliament,” the source from the embassy meeting said.