‘If he says die, we die’: Al-Sadr loyalists jubilant at Iraq poll triumph

Followers of Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr celebrate in Tahrir Square, Baghdad, on May 14, 2018. Al-Sadr is the current front-runner in national elections. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)
Updated 17 May 2018

‘If he says die, we die’: Al-Sadr loyalists jubilant at Iraq poll triumph

  • If, as expected, the Muqtada Al-Sadr's political bloc comes out on top, it will mark an extraordinary transformation for a man best known for his ferocious opposition to the US occupation.
  • The vote could leave him with a key role in forming the largest parliamentary bloc, which has the right to nominate Iraq’s prime minister and form a government.

BAGHDAD, IRAQ: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the volatile Shiite cleric who once sent his supporters into battle against US troops, has emerged as the unlikely kingmaker in Iraq’s parliamentary elections.

With his black turban, short grey beard and heavyset build, Sadr’s imposing presence looms over Baghdad literally and metaphorically as the final votes from this week’s poll are counted and campaign posters litter the streets.

Full results are due to be announced later on Thursday and if, as expected, the political bloc led by the 44-year-old comes out on top, it will mark an extraordinary transformation for a man best known for his ferocious opposition to the US occupation.

While Al-Sadr remains inextricably linked with his violent past, the steadfast loyalty of his supporters has enabled him to benefit from the low turnout that hindered his rivals in Saturday’s election. 

For his legions of devoted admirers, the cleric’s reputation for independence and his status as the scion of one of Iraq’s most notable Shiite families are more important than his policies.

Ahmad Al-Anbaki, a 28-year-old Al-Sadr supporter, told Arab News: “We are Sadr’s followers. We do what he says without arguing or thinking.

“If he says die, we will die for him. If he says fight, we will fight under his banner. And if he says be peaceful, we will be peaceful. Al-Sadr’s orders are non-negotiable.”

With 92 percent of the votes already counted in 16 of Iraq’s 18 provinces, Sadr’s Sairoon alliance is on course to gain dozens of seats in the country’s 329-seat Parliament.

The cleric owes much of his strength to the legacy of his father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Mohammed Sadeq Al-Sadr, a vocal opponent of former President Saddam Hussein, who was assassinated with two of his sons in 1999.

Building on his father’s reputation as a defender of the poor, the young Al-Sadr emerged on Iraq’s political scene after the 2003 US-led invasion.

His militia, the Mehdi army, fought pitched battles against American troops in Baghdad’s slums and the holy city of Najaf. It also struck fear into many Sunni Iraqis and was accused of carrying out kidnappings, torture and extrajudicial killings.

But when Al-Sadr began to distance himself from Iran, he found himself sidelined by fellow Shiite politicians more closely aligned with Tehran and his influence dwindled. He has participated in previous elections with limited success.

Saturday’s vote, however, could leave him with a key role in forming the largest parliamentary bloc, which has the right to nominate Iraq’s prime minister and form a government.

Abdulwahid Tuama, an Iraqi political analyst, told Arab News: “Sadr’s strength lies in the blind obedience of his followers. They are ready to follow him anywhere and do whatever he asks them to do without discussions.”

The Sairoon alliance includes Iraq’s Communist Party and is anti-Iranian but also anti-American, while Al-Sadr portrays himself as a nationalist keen to bridge the sectarian divisions of old.

Voter turnout was just 44.52 percent on Saturday, down 15 percent from the previous parliamentary election in 2014. 

Second place in the election seems set to go to the Iranian-backed Al-Fattah alliance, which is supported by armed Shiite factions. Another grouping, the Al-Nassir coalition of current Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi, is likely to come third. 

Al-Sadr’s supporters, meanwhile, are preparing to celebrate his extraordinary victory.

“I completely trust him,” Haider Al-Fraidawi, a 40-year-old voter, told Arab News. “I believe he is able to decide the best for this nation.”


UN says Libyan sides sign countrywide cease-fire deal

Updated 36 min 10 sec ago

UN says Libyan sides sign countrywide cease-fire deal

  • Libya is split between a UN-supported government in the capital, Tripoli, and rival authorities based in the east
  • Libya’s prized light crude has long featured in the country’s civil war, with rival militias and foreign powers jostling for control of Africa’s largest oil reserves

GENEVA: The United Nations said Friday that the two sides in Libyan military talks had reached a “historic achievement” with a permanent cease-fire agreement across the war-torn North African country.
After mediation this week led by UN envoy for Libya Stephanie Turco Williams, the 5+5 Joint Military Commission reached what the UN called an “important turning point toward peace and stability in Libya.”
Details were not immediately available, but the two sides were taking part in a signing ceremony in Geneva on Friday morning.
Libya is split between a UN-supported government in the capital, Tripoli, and rival authorities based in the east. The two sides are backed by an array of local militias as well as regional and foreign powers. The country was plunged into chaos after the 2011 NATO-backed uprising that toppled and killed longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi.
“The road to a permanent cease-fire deal was often long and difficult,” Williams, a former US State Department official, said in Arabic at the signing ceremony.
“Before us is a lot of work in the coming days and weeks in order to implement the commitments of the agreement,” she said. “It is essential to continue work as quickly as possible in order to alleviate the many problems due to this conflict facing the Libyan people.”
“We have to give people hope of a better future,” Williams added. She expressed hope the agreement will succeed “in ending the suffering of Libyans and allowing those displaced by the conflict to return to their homes.”
Ali Abushahma, the head of the delegation and a field commander for the UN-supported administration in Tripoli, said: “We have had enough suffering, enough bloodshed ... We hope we will change the suffering on all the territories of Libya, especially in the south.”
“I appeal to all Libya: Be one hand,” he said, warning about polarization by factions.
The meetings this week mark the fourth round of talks involving the Joint Military Commission under Williams’ watch. The Geneva-based military talks come ahead of a political forum in Tunisia in November. That forum aims to “generate consensus on a unified governance framework and arrangements that will lead to the holding of national elections,” the UN mission said.
On Wednesday, Williams had said the two warring factions agreed on issues that “directly impact the lives and welfare of the Libyan people,” citing agreements to open air and land routes in the country, to work to ease inflammatory rhetoric in Libyan media, and to help kickstart Libya’s vital oil industry.
Libya’s prized light crude has long featured in the country’s civil war, with rival militias and foreign powers jostling for control of Africa’s largest oil reserves.
Last month, the two sides reached preliminary agreements to exchange prisoners and open up air and land transit across the country’s divided territory. This breakthrough also accompanied the resumption of oil production after a months-long blockade by powerful tribes allied with military commander Khalifa Haftar, the leader of the eastern-based forces.
Haftar’s forces launched an offensive in April 2019 to try and capture Tripoli, the seat of the UN-supported government in the west. But his campaign collapsed in June.
Fighting has since died down amid international pressure on both sides to avert an attack on the strategic city of Sirte, the gateway to Libya’s major oil export terminals.