Iraq’s al-Sadr turns to Iran-backed rival in bid to end vote fraud crisis

The tense atmosphere provided Amiri, and by extension his Iranian backers, the opportunity to be at the heart of Iraq’s next government.
Sunday 17/06/2018
Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr (L) speaks during a news conference with the leader of the Conquest Coalition and the Iran-backed Shia militia Badr Organisation Hadi al-Amiri in Najaf, on June 12.  (Reuters)
A choice of pragmatism. Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr (L) speaks during a news conference with the leader of the Conquest Coalition and the Iran-backed Shia militia Badr Organisation Hadi al-Amiri in Najaf, on June 12. (Reuters)

LONDON - Divisions among Iraqi politicians over how to deal with voting fraud and irregularities during May’s parliamentary elections appear to have prompted Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to form a political alliance with his electoral rival, Iran-backed Hadi al-Amiri, as a way out of the crisis that has engulfed the country.

Al-Sadr, whose Marching Towards Reform alliance won the most seats — 54 — in the elections had previously ruled out joining forces with Amiri's Conquest Coalition, which was second with 47 seats. There are 329 seats in Iraq’s Council of Representatives.

The election campaigns of both camps prided themselves on being opposed to each other. While al-Sadr’s supporters stressed the need for the country to be independent of Iran’s influence, Amiri’s camp viewed Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei as a source of political guidance.

Just few days before announcing his alliance with Amiri, whose list is dotted with militiamen, al-Sadr had called for a nationwide disarmament of Iraqi militias after an ammunitions cache exploded in Baghdad’s Sadr City, killing 18 people.

Evidence of 'widespread' fraud  

Calls for a partial recount of the votes increased as evidence of fraud surfaced. A government investigation into the allegations reported serious misconduct by the Independent High Elections Commission (IHEC).

“There may have been some violations by candidates but the election commission bears the largest share of the responsibility,” said Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, whose Victory Alliance claimed the third-most seats, 42.

Abadi ordered a criminal investigation into what he termed “dangerous” and “widespread manipulation” of elections. Top IHEC members were banned from travel but constitutionally the government is not authorised to order a recount.

The IHEC consistently objected to a partial recount, which is within its authority, although it promised to check candidates’ complaints.

Iraq’s parliament passed a law that put the country’s top judicial authority in charge of the recount instead of the IHEC, a move the electoral commission branded unconstitutional.

The fallout escalated when a fire damaged Iraq’s biggest ballot warehouse ahead of the vote recount, although officials said most of the ballot boxes were unaffected by the blaze.

Blame game

Three policemen and one member of the IHEC were arrested on suspicion of setting the fire but it remained unknown who ordered the sabotage and Iraqi politicians traded blame over who is responsible.

Some members of parliament, encouraged by evidence of voting fraud, called for a total repeat of elections, drawing outrage from other lawmakers who branded them as sore losers.

Al-Sadr, who had not backed calls for a partial recount, warned that Iraq may be drifting towards chaos, or worse, civil war.

The tense atmosphere provided Amiri, and by extension his Iranian backers, the opportunity to be at the heart of Iraq’s next government. After meeting with Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad, Amiri went to al-Sadr in Najaf and asked to join forces.

It is likely that al-Sadr thought that by combining the votes of the top two lists a governing coalition could boast of more votes than those lost due to fraud.

“All of the negative factors surrounding the election’s credibility led to the first and second vote winners (al-Sadr and Amiri) to join forces, to send a clear message to Iraqis that they are against cancelling the election result, that they are the election winners and people should deal with them as such,” said Nadeem al-Abdalla, project manager of Anglo-Iraqi Studies Centre in London.

“At present, al-Sadr and Amiri are concerned with preserving their winner status and they are afraid this would be taken away from them in the next few weeks, if Iraq’s Supreme Court decides to cancel the election results,” he added.

Kurds welcome Iran-backed alliance 

A potential al-Sadr-Amiri alliance was welcomed “as a positive step” by Iraq’s leading Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which are facing voting fraud allegations.

In a joint statement, PUK and KDP claimed they played a role in helping the formation of the new bloc and that the two Kurdish parties would be sending a joint delegation to Baghdad to discuss being part of the alliance. The KDP claimed 25 seats and the PUK 18 after the election.

Some observers expressed doubt over the longevity of an al-Sadr-Amiri alliance.

“I won’t put too much emphasis on the (al-Sadr-Amiri) meeting. The Conquest Alliance has previously made an alliance with the Victory Alliance and that fell apart in one night,” Izzat al-Shahbandar, a former parliament member, told Al Sharqiya TV.

“If you look at Mr al-Sadr’s moves, he first backed a second term for Haider al-Abadi, then signed a pact with the National Wisdom alliance and the National Alliance... This gives us the impression that the alliances that are currently being formed are not fixed alliances.”

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