Earlier this month, Iraq held elections. Fifteen years ago, Iraqi elections were considered a big deal in the U.S. Nowadays, hardly anyone here pays attention to them.
That’s understandable. Saddam Hussein, al Qaeda in Iraq, and ISIS are all long gone.
But Iran isn’t. Neither are those strong Iranian-backed militias. And the U.S. still has a small contingent of troops there.
Thus, it’s worth taking a moment to consider the outcome of the latest election there. The Washington Post reports that what happened is (1) an alliance of candidates representing Shiite militias supported by Iran lost ground and (2) the party of Muqtada al-Sadr, a one-time bitter enemy of the U.S. and threat to our troops, won a plurality of parliamentary seats.
Back when al-Sadr was leading his militia against America, I always suspected that if we didn’t kill him — and he would have deserved it — the young, firebrand Orson Wells lookalike would one day emerge as the leading player in Iraq and maybe even a force for stability. Our policy makers may have suspected the same thing. Reportedly, when our military had the chance to take al-Sadr out, we didn’t do it.
Al-Sadr had charisma that other contenders for power seemed to lack. He established his credibility by taking on American forces and getting away with it. He’s a Shiite, and thus part of the dominant religious sect. And he was not controlled by Iran, which gave him appeal to an Iraqi nationalism which says, in effect, neither America nor Iran.
Almost 20 years later, al-Sadr is playing that part, and has been for some time. And because America is only lightly engaged in Iraq now, while Iran seeks thoroughly to dominate its politics, al-Sadr’s nationalism seems to run mostly in an anti-Iran direction.
The New York Times calls al-Sadr “an arm’s-length American ally” who is “helping the United States by preventing Iraq from tilting further into Iran’s axis.” Exaggeration? Maybe. The Post calls al-Sadr “close to Iran.”
But his anti-Iranian-backed militia rhetoric support the Times’ characterization. In a pointed reference to these militias, some of which have grown more powerful than Iraq’s official security forces and pose a threat to the U.S. in Iraq, al-Sadr said:.
From now on, arms must be restricted in the hands of the state. The use of weapons shall be prevented outside of the state’s framework.
Discounting the argument that militias and weapons are necessary to “resist” the U.S. presence, al-Sadr added that “it is time for the people to live in peace, without occupation, terrorism, militias, kidnapping and fear.”
Can al-Sadr make this stick? His party won only 73 seats in the 329-member parliament. Yes, that gives him the biggest single bloc of votes in Parliament and a decisive voice in choosing the next Iraqi prime minister. But this doesn’t necessarily translate into the ability to crack down successfully on pro-Iranian militias.
Remember, though, that al-Sadr’s strength isn’t just electoral. He has his own powerful militia and his own social network which, the Times says, provides food, support for orphans and widows, and many other services the Iraqi government fails to deliver.
According to the Times, this son of a leading Shiite cleric (whom Saddam Hussein killed) commands the loyalty of millions of Iraqi Shiites. Additionally, in recent times, he has reached out to Sunnis, Christians, and other minorities.
What about America’s role in Iraq following the election? Al-Sadr says he will leave it to the incoming government to decide whether U.S. forces should remain in Iraq. This sounds disingenuous given the major role he’s likely to play in determining the composition of the incoming government.
The U.S. has agreed to withdraw all combat troops from the country by December 31. However, our government doesn’t deem the 2,000 troops currently in Iraq to be on a combat mission.
The Times predicts that we will continue to maintain troops at this level next year, with Baghdad’s agreement — and al-Sadr’s.