In this photo provided by the Iraqi government, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, right, and Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr hold a press conference in the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, Iraq, May 20, 2018.
In this photo provided by the Iraqi government, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, right, and Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr hold a press conference in the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, Iraq, May 20, 2018.

The prospect of firebrand Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr wielding the greatest influence of any Iraqi leader over the formation of a government in Baghdad would have prompted panic in Washington years ago.

In the wake of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and ouster of Saddam Hussein, al-Sadr’s Mahdi army butchered Sunni Muslims in Baghdad and resisted Coalition forces. In inflammatory sermons, Al-Sadr urged his followers to attack American soldiers and to throw out “foreign occupiers.”

But as he negotiates the shaping of a coalition government two weeks after his bloc’s strong showing in the May 12 parliamentary elections, winning 54 seats, the most of any of the electoral alliances, U.S. officials aren’t as ruffled as once they might have been.

They are pinning their hopes, they say, on al-Sadr continuing to move away from his old sectarian militancy and to emerge as a more inclusive Iraqi nationalist and, most importantly for Washington, remaining an outspoken opponent of Tehran.

FILE - Supporters of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr
FILE - In this Monday, May 14, 2018 file photo, supporters of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, carry his image as they celebrate in Tahrir Square, Baghdad, Iraq.

This week, al-Sadr, who didn’t compete as a candidate, has signaled his readiness for Haider al-Abadi, the moderate Shi’ite leader and a U.S. ally in the fight against the Islamic State group, to continue as prime minister, heading a more inclusive government. U.S. officials say they hope al-Sadr’s bloc, the Sairoon Alliance for Reform, which includes a ragtag of Sunni factions united behind an anti-corruption message, can help bridge Iraq’s sectarian division.

In testimony Tuesday before a congressional foreign affairs panel, analyst Tamara Cofman Wittes of the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, highlighted what she called a glimmer of hope offered by the Iraqi elections, saying the outcome presented “a fragile but important counterpoint to a region in turmoil.”

Al-Sadr’s Sairoon bloc won a dozen seats more than prime minister Haider al-Abadi’s alliance, which came in third behind the Fatah Alliance, a Tehran-backed coalition of militia groups from the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF).

In this photo provided by the Sadr Media Office, S
In this photo provided by the Sadr Media Office, Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, left, greets Shiite leader Ammar al-Hakim on his arrival for their meeting in Baghdad, Iraq, May 22, 2018.

New parliament

Cofman Wittes says while the outcome election for the 329-seat parliament holds risks, it also offers opportunities with security gains having “increased citizens’ appetite for pragmatic policies” and nationalism growing in relative importance to divisive sectarianism. But a new coalition government needs to deliver on change and must improve the economy, she cautions.

“If citizens’ needs aren’t addressed, they might simply give up on electoral politics and on the government itself as a source of solutions to their day-to-day problems. Extremists could exploit this frustration,” she says.

This week, Brett McGurk, the U.S. special envoy, has been visiting Iraq, pressing a U.S. wish list of continuity on the country’s political leaders, arguing for economic reform and a continuation of a U.S. military presence to help ensure IS doesn’t regroup. In December 2017 Iraq declared victory over the hardline Sunni militant group.

The danger from the jihadists, who have carried out sporadic attacks in the past few weeks, particularly in the north, around Iraq’s second city Mosul, remains and was underscored Thursday when at least four people were killed and 15 wounded in a suicide attack in a Shi’ite district in Iraq’s capital Baghdad.

No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, although it bore the hallmarks of IS suicide bombings.

Al-Sadr’s spokesman indicated midweek to Western reporters that the radical cleric would have no objections to U.S. troops remaining in Iraq to train Iraqi soldiers and to assist in mopping up IS cells — something he said would have to be formalized in an agreement with a new government.

While U.S. and other Western diplomats express wary optimism about al-Sadr, hoping for the best and prodding for an inclusive reform-minded coalition government, Iranian state-run media have been expressing alarm.

Tehran's fears

Tehran fears the populist cleric “will seek to undercut the Islamic Republic’s influence in Iraq by marginalizing Iran’s allies and allowing regional Sunni countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, to make inroads into Iraqi politics and economy at the expense of Tehran’s interests,” says Ahmad Majidyar of the Middle East Institute, a U.S.-based policy research group. Iranian officials said prior to the elections that a secular government in Baghdad wouldn’t be acceptable to Tehran.

“Al-Sadr’s strong performance on the ballot day prompted Major General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force, to immediately travel to Baghdad, in an apparent effort to pull together a broader alliance between Iran’s Shi’ite allies and other willing parties for a coalition government amenable to the Islamic Republic,” he notes.

One of McGurk’s biggest challenge may remain in brokering an agreement between Baghdad and Iraqi Kurds generally and to persuade four Kurdish opposition parties to accept the results of the May 12 elections. On Tuesday, in the Iraqi Kurdistan city of Sulaimani, the special envoy was told by Kurdish opposition leaders that they remain resolute in demanding a re-run of the elections, arguing the polls were marred by voter fraud.

The overall challenge for whoever heads a new Iraqi government, once tortuous negotiations are concluded, will be to deliver change. In a tweet following the elections al-Sadr promised, “We will not disappoint you.” But the new government will not have a working majority in the parliament and will face likely efforts not only by the more sectarian-minded lawmakers to sabotage reform, but also from change advocates, who will not want their own patronage networks disrupted with the appointment of technocrats to government jobs.

Overhauling dysfunctional state entities and trying to diversify a sickly economy by attracting foreign investment would be a tall order even for a government with a strong parliamentary majority.

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