Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr was one of the big winners in the Iraq election. Photo: AFP/Haidar Hamdani
Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Photo: AFP / Haidar Hamdani

In an ironic twist, May 12, which was the deadline for US President Donald Trump’s decision on the Iran nuclear deal, also happened to be the day the Iraqi parliamentary elections took place.

Yet no one seemed to take note of the symbolism. In the event, the Iraqi election results seriously hinder Trump’s agenda of rolling back the Iranian presence in the northern tier of the Middle East comprising Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

Of these three countries, Iraq is arguably the most crucial theatre of contestation between the United States and Iran. The fate of the Iranian presence and Iranian capacity to influence the politics of the entire Shi’ite arc will be critically dependent on its standing and influence in Baghdad. The stakes have never been as high as they are today.

To be sure, the Iraqi election results that were formally announced on Sunday constitute a stunning setback for Trump’s containment strategy against Iran. Washington had bet heavily on the alliance led by Prime Minister Heidar al-Abadi to win, but it has been relegated to third place, winning only 42 seats in the 329-member parliament.

Anti-American tilt

Worse still, two staunchly anti-American alliances – led by Muqtadar al-Sadr and Hadi al-Amiri – secured first and second places respectively.

Coalition making will be a long drawn out process, but what is clear is that the next government in Baghdad will have a pronouncedly anti-American tilt and the probability is high that it could evict US troops and contractors totaling 100,000 in Iraq.

While Amiri leads the powerful Iran-aligned militia groups known as the Popular Mobilization Force, Sadr’s surge is really bad news for the Americans. Sadr’s Mahdi Army has the blood of hundreds of Americans and Brits on its hands.

In the expert opinion of the Washington-based think tank Brookings Institution: “His (Sadr’s) victory has turned America’s Iraq policy upside down, and Washington now faces a severe political crisis in a country where it has invested substantial blood and treasure … His movement gave rise to many of the Shiite militia groups that committed atrocities against Americans and that today dominate Iraq – as well as the front lines of the war in Syria, where they have fought US forces. These groups have been pivotal to securing the Assad regime’s survival as well as enhancing Iran’s influence in the region.”

In the coming weeks and months, Tehran will play a key role in the negotiations for the formation of the next government in Baghdad. During earlier such moments, Tehran and Washington had tacitly agreed on compromise candidates – prime ministers Abadi and Nouri al-Maliki respectively – but the scope for such accommodation is non-existent today.

Western analysts make much out of Sadr’s nationalistic outlook to give it an anti-Iranian tweak, but that betrays wishful thinking. Sadr is indeed a mercurial personality and tends to lean toward “red Shi’ism” in his outlook on Iraq’s political economy. His alliance partners are communists and secularists.

The Iran-Sadr connection

But significantly, he met Amiri on Monday and said later in a statement: “The process of government formation must be a national decision and importantly, must include the participation of all the winning blocs.”

Again, much has been made out of Sadr’s visit to Saudi Arabia last year and his meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, but in reality, the warming relationship between Baghdad and the Persian Gulf states – Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar – runs only skin deep.

On the other hand, Iranians and Sadr’s family go back a long way. Sadr lived in Tehran in exile for many years. Meanwhile, reports say Tehran is bringing on board the two main Iraqi Kurdish parties – KDP and the PUK – who feel aggrieved that the US connived with Abadi’s crackdown in Kirkuk last October, to align with Amiri.

All in all, Tehran can afford to weigh the pros and cons of many options open to it.

It is entirely conceivable that Tehran might even choose to settle for another government led by Abadi as the figurehead of a staunchly pro-Iranian power structure. Ever since the regime change in Baghdad following the US invasion in 2003, Tehran has made sustained and intense efforts to cultivate wide-ranging political partnerships with Iraqi groups across the religious, ethnic and political spectrum.

It is preposterous to fantasize that Baghdad is about to move out of Iranian orbit.

The bottom line is that a new coalition government in Baghdad over which Iran enjoys political leverage may well set a timetable for the withdrawal of American troops. The Trump administration must prepare for such an eventuality since it has left Tehran in no doubt that continued US military presence in Iraq poses an existential threat of “regime change.” Trust Tehran to pull out all the stops – short of directly targeting US troops – to undermine the American influence in Iraq.

On the other hand, a well-grounded military footing in Iraq is an absolute pre-requisite for the Pentagon to conduct its operations at the present scale in northeastern Syria, given the imponderables in Turkey’s continued cooperation. In these circumstances, it is hard to see how Trump is going to realize his dream to get Iranians to vacate from Iraq or Syria.

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