Abadi’s big fail in Iraq as Sadrists triumph

He defeated ISIS, but couldn’t defeat the Iraqi electorate. Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi thought that his “victory” coalition could romp home in the May 12 elections. Instead he has been upended by Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who ran in a coalition with communists. The Shi’ite militias who are close to Iran and led by Hadi al-Amiri also did well.

Slightly less than half of Iraq’s eligible voters turned out to vote in the first elections since ISIS was defeated in the country. Sadr, a vocal critic of Iran’s influence in Iraq and an avowed enemy of the United States, appears to have won 54 seats in the 329 seat parliament. Amiri’s “Fateh” list, which is made up of militia members from the Popular Mobilization Units, a group of mostly Shi’ite militias formed to fight ISIS, took 42 seats.

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What this means for Iraq is unclear. With a major critic of Iran leading, he will have a chance to form the next government. But Iran’s closest allies in Amiri’s PMU have also done well. Amiri even served alongside the Iranians in the 1980s during the war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

What is clear is that Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition and Abadi, who was once a member of Maliki’s party, have been given the red card. Maliki was pushed into power with the help of US influence in 2010 to have a “strongman” at the helm. Instead Maliki rotted away Iraq’s power and appointed chauvinist sectarian cronies. His army disintegrated in the face of the ISIS threat in 2014.

Abadi came to power in 2014, with a mission to defeat ISIS. He has successfully done that and he has ingratiated himself with the US and the international community. But Iraqis do not seem inspired by Abadi. That’s because he isn’t inspiring. He appeals to the West because he talks nicely.

Quietly, he is also close to Iran. Western powers supported the Janus-faced leader because he enables them to pretend the new Iraq of 2018 is truly some new country unburdened by the problems of the past.

But all the problems of the past are present in Iraq today. Sunni Arabs whose cities fell to ISIS in 2014 have no real representation in parliament. Their broken map of parties, the Nujaifis in Mosul and Allawi’s more secular list, have not performed well.

The Kurds also have a very divided political map. In Sulimaniyeh the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan appeared to triumph but there were allegations of fraud and gunfights broke out with members of the Change (Gorran) movement. In Dohuk and Erbil the Kurdistan Democratic Party performed as expected, taking a vast majority of votes.

The Kurdish region is still dealing with the after affects of the independence referendum of September 2017. Since then, they lost control of Kirkuk and Sinjar and have faced some economic troubles. The elections were a chance to get beyond that, but the Kurds seep to be as divided as ever, and it appears apathy led some voters to stay home. Large numbers of Kurds supported the referendum and they don’t see hope for being part of a unified Iraq.

What’s left now is for Sadr to figure out how he might create a coalition. In the past he has shied away from politics, while playing a role as religious cleric and militia leader. Being seen as untainted by corruption and not tethered to foreign powers like Iran or rooted in family oligarchies of the past, probably helped him.

But how will he deliver? His supporters have led populist protests before, but it’s not clear what his vision is for the future of Iraq. There was a lot of hope on election day for a post-ISIS period. Now, the multiplicity of parties, none of whom have close to a majority, must work together. 

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