US puts brave face on Sadr’s win in Iraq, hopes for pragmatism

The victory by Sadr in Iraq’s parliamentary election came as a surprise for the US.
Sunday 20/05/2018
Muntazer al-Zaidi, an Iraqi journalist famous for throwing a shoe at former US President George W. Bush in 2008, attends a rally in Baghdad, on May 4.                                                  (AFP)
New equation. Muntazer al-Zaidi, an Iraqi journalist famous for throwing a shoe at former US President George W. Bush in 2008, attends a rally in Baghdad, on May 4. (AFP)

WASHINGTON - His fighters used to kill US soldiers in Iraq. Now he holds the keys to the next Iraqi government in his hands.

The victory by Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq’s parliamentary election came as a surprise for the US government, whose favourite, current Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, came in third place. As the leader of the biggest group in Iraq’s new parliament, Sadr could change the course of US-Iraqi relations. “He would not have been our choice for the number one spot,” retired Lieutenant-General Sean MacFarland, a former commander of the US military’s fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq, told the broadcaster NPR. “At one point we viewed him as a significant threat,” MacFarland said.

Sadr’s Mahdi Army battled US forces in Iraq after the invasion toppling Saddam Hussein in 2003. Three years later, Newsweek magazine called him the “most dangerous man in Iraq.”

Today, Sadr has softened but is still calling for the withdrawal of the more than 5,000 US soldiers deployed in Iraq to prevent a re-emergence of ISIS. The 44-year-old Shia cleric has ruled himself out for the post of prime minister as he embarks on the task of assembling a government.

The Trump administration is putting a brave face on Sadr’s win, pointing out the free choice of the people in a democratic election and the chance for a peaceful transition of power, a relatively rare spectacle in the Middle East. “The Iraqi people had an election. It’s a democratic process at a time when people, many people doubted that Iraq could take charge of themselves,” US Defence Secretary James Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement his government “stands ready to partner with Iraqi leaders.”

Washington has not said how it would deal with Sadr’s demand that US soldiers leave Iraq. “We stand ready to work with whoever is fairly elected by the Iraqi people,” Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon said.

David Mack, a former US ambassador in the region who works for the Middle East Institute in Washington, said the Trump administration was likely to try to work with Sadr despite the difficult history of the two sides. The US “will reach out” to Sadr, Mack wrote in an e-mail in response to questions. “American foreign policy can be quite flexible on such issues,” he added, pointing to American policies towards former enemies Germany and Japan after the second world war.

Following Abadi’s defeat, Sadr might yet emerge as America’s best bet. The cleric could help to produce stability for state institutions and push back against Iran’s role in the country, both US priorities for Iraq after the elections. Mack said statements by Sadr signalling his willingness to work with Abadi and Ammar al-Hakim’s National Wisdom Movement were positive indications. Sadr embraced a nationalist instead of a sectarian programme during the election campaign.

“His victory reflects a vote in support of Iraqi nationalism, against corruption and arguably against Iranian influence,” said Rachel Brandenburg, director of the Middle East Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Centre for Strategy and Security in Washington. Sadr’s opposition to Iranian influence in Iraq is especially important for Washington.

“If nothing else, this election reminds everyone that almost all Iraqis are very nationalistic and do not welcome foreign influence on Iraq’s politics,” Mack wrote. “Iran had best proceed very cautiously.”

News reports say Tehran is trying to exert influence on players in Baghdad to ensure the creation of a pro-Iranian government. Major-General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite al-Quds Force, has travelled to Baghdad for talks with Iraqi politicians from several parties, according to the reports.

Whether with Sadr or without him, one of the most important decisions facing the new Iraqi government from a US viewpoint is whether US troops in the country can stay or will have to leave. After former US President Barack Obama implemented a plan to withdraw US soldiers by 2011, the Americans were back in Iraq in 2014 to fight ISIS. Brandenburg, writing in an e-mail in response to questions, pointed out that the US military was invited back into the country by the central government in Baghdad.

“The real question for the United States is whether and under what framework the new Iraqi government, once formed, will allow them to stay in Iraq — or will they invite US forces, for example, to leave the country,” Brandenburg wrote.

“While there has recently been some effort to expand economic and trade partnership between the US and Baghdad, most attention for the past four years has been focused on enabling the Iraqi Security Forces to fight ISIS, and supporting the UN-led stabilisation effort.”

If the new Iraqi government were to give the green light for the Americans to stay, they would probably do so, Brandenburg added. “If allowed by the new Iraqi government to maintain ongoing bilateral — and coalition — efforts, I expect the US will stay the course.”