US and Iran rep­re­sen­ta­tives in Baghdad as ne­go­ti­a­tions for new Iraq government be­gin

▶ Who­ever takes power should put the needs of dis­en­fran­chised cit­i­zens front and cen­tre

The National - News - - FRONT PAGE - MINA ALDROUBI

Ne­go­ti­a­tions were un­der way be­tween Iraqi politi­cians yes­ter­day af­ter the coun­try’s first elec­tion since the fall of ISIS de­liv­ered a shock third place re­sult for Haider Al Abadi, the in­cum­bent prime min­is­ter long backed by the US.

Pre­lim­i­nary re­sults showed that pop­ulist cleric Mo­q­tada Al Sadr, an Iraqi na­tion­al­ist who has dis­tanced him­self from neigh­bour­ing states, was set to win the most seats in par­lia­ment. His March­ing Towards Re­form al­liance with Iraq’s com­mu­nists tapped into pop­u­lar anger over cor­rup­tion and for­eign med­dling.

The Shi­ite cleric has ruled him­self out of the premier­ship. In­stead, he hopes to be the king­maker who can cob­ble to­gether a tech­no­cratic government from a dozen par­ties.

But with his al­liance fall­ing short of a ma­jor­ity, lengthy wran­gling in Baghdad is ex­pected as ri­val par­ties at­tempt to forge a gov­ern­ing coali­tion.

The fi­nal na­tion­wide re­sults should be an­nounced in the next two days, ac­cord­ing to Riyadh Al Bad­ran, the Iraqi elec­toral com­mis­sion chief.

The moves to shore up a coali­tion government be­came an in­ter­na­tional af­fair on Tues­day, as Brett McGurk, the White House spe­cial rep­re­sen­ta­tive in the fight against ISIS, ar­rived in Baghdad for talks to bro­ker a deal favourable to Wash­ing­ton. Also re­ported to be in the Iraqi cap­i­tal was Qasem Soleimani, the shad­owy spy chief who leads the for­eign wing of the Is­lamic Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guards Corps known as the Quds Forces.

The vis­its are a mark of the im­por­tance Amer­ica and Iran placed on the out­come of the vote.

The US has sup­ported Mr Al Abadi’s government for more than three years, help­ing him and Iraq’s armed forces de­feat ISIS af­ter the mil­i­tant group seized con­trol of much of north and west Iraq in 2014.

Iran spon­sors nu­mer­ous Shi­ite mili­tias who make up the ma­jor­ity of the government-aligned Pop­u­lar Mo­bil­i­sa­tion Forces.

Mr Al Sadr has long railed against Ira­nian in­ter­fer­ence in the coun­try and al­lies of Tehran rounded on the sur­prise vote win­ner.

Mr Soleimani ar­rived in Iraq on Satur­day, the day of the par­lia­men­tary elec­tions, to try to bro­ker a coali­tion among Mr Al Sadr’s Shi­ite ri­vals.

“Qasem Soleimani is in Baghdad to try to make sure that the National Al­liance, which holds all the Is­lamist Shi­ite groups

to­gether, is able to main­tain it­self,” Re­nad Man­sour, se­nior re­search fel­low at Lon­don’s Chatham House, told The National.

Mr Al Sadr has been clear that he will not com­pro­mise with Iran by form­ing a coali­tion with its main al­lies: Hadi Al Amiri, leader of the Shi­ite Badr para­mil­i­tary group and Fatah, and for­mer prime min­is­ter Nouri Al Ma­liki, who is lead­ing the State of Law bloc and was in charge when ISIS ad­vanced in 2014.

“If Al Sadr’s group is ex­cluded, that would lead to in­sta­bil­ity and the protest move­ment would emerge even stronger,” Mr Man­sour said.

For­mal talks are ex­pected to take place af­ter fi­nal re­sults are an­nounced. The chal­lenge for Mr Al Sadr and his ri­vals will now be to demon­strate and de­liver progress af­ter vot­ers ap­peared to rail against the Iraqi po­lit­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment.

Mr Al Sadr’s ad­vance in the elec­tions is a “warn­ing shot for par­ties as they face the De­cem­ber 2018 lo­cal elec­tions – they know now that vot­ers want some­thing dif­fer­ent and ex­cit­ing”, said Michael Knights, a fel­low at the Wash­ing­ton In­sti­tute for Near East Pol­icy.

Sev­eral in­ci­dents yes­ter­day high­lighted the coun­try’s pre­car­i­ous se­cu­rity sit­u­a­tion and frac­tured po­lit­i­cal at­mos­phere. A sui­cide bomber killed eight peo­ple and in­jured 30 in the Taji district north of Baghdad. No group claimed re­spon­si­bil­ity but ISIS has un­der­taken sev­eral at­tacks in and around Baghdad in re­cent years.

In Kirkuk, the elec­toral com­mis­sion head Riyadh Al Bad­ran re­ported that gun­men had be­sieged sev­eral polling sta­tions, dis­rupt­ing the vote count in the north­ern city at the heart of the long-run­ning dis­pute with Iraqi Kurds.

The Kirkuk gov­er­nor’s of­fice said there was no hostage-tak­ing and fur­ther re­ports in­di­cated the gath­er­ing was only a sitin by Arab and Turk­men in an area where the Pa­tri­otic Union of Kur­dis­tan won the largest share of the vote.

It is an idio­syn­crasy of the Iraqi elec­tion sys­tem that it is only now, af­ter the votes have been counted, that the real pol­i­tick­ing is be­gin­ning. While many ob­servers have been sur­prised by the re­sults of the first elec­tion since the de­feat of ISIS – with Prime Min­is­ter Haider Al Abadi’s Vic­tory Al­liance end­ing in third place – Iraqi vot­ers have been left with a line-up of fa­mil­iar faces. The out­come is, per­haps, more pro­found than sim­ply a deep-rooted frus­tra­tion with es­tab­lished sec­tar­ian lead­ers. in­flu­en­tial cleric Mo­q­tada Al Sadr might have de­fied ex­pec­ta­tions to emerge vic­to­ri­ous in the elec­tion but his suc­cess speaks largely to his de­nun­ci­a­tion of cor­rup­tion and external in­flu­ence. More than 15 years af­ter the fall of dic­ta­tor Sad­dam Hus­sein, Iraqis have tired of the cor­rupt po­lit­i­cal elites. Dis­en­chant­ment led to a turnout of 44.5 per cent, ex­pli­ca­ble in part by the in­ter­nal dis­place­ment of 2.6 mil­lion Iraqis and those who lacked of­fi­cial doc­u­men­ta­tion to reg­is­ter to vote. Iraq’s jaded elec­torate yearns for a brighter, non-sec­tar­ian fu­ture. But as the po­lit­i­cal jock­ey­ing gets un­der­way, the em­pha­sis should be on work­ing towards healing frac­tures rather than cre­at­ing new ones.

As things stand, Mr Al Sadr’s bloc is poised to take 54 seats in par­lia­ment, more than any other coali­tion. Although 165 seats are re­quired to form a government, it none­the­less el­e­vates the cleric from the fringes of Iraqi pol­i­tics to the role of king­maker. Many ex­pect him to form an al­liance with Mr Al Abadi, prompt­ing a scram­ble from re­gional and global play­ers to in­flu­ence a fu­ture government. Brett McGurk, the US pres­i­den­tial spe­cial en­voy to the anti-ISIS coali­tion, was re­port­edly in Baghdad on Mon­day to meet Mr Al Abadi and other coali­tion lead­ers. Mean­while Qassem Suleimani, the Is­lamic Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard Corps com­man­der, is in Iraq in a brazen at­tempt to ad­vance Ira­nian in­ter­ests. As dif­fer­ent fac­tions ham­mer out coali­tions, it is still un­clear how they will tackle Iraq’s many chal­lenges, most no­tably its en­demic cor­rup­tion. An es­ti­mated $100 bil­lion is re­quired to re­build Iraq af­ter the war against ISIS de­stroyed 20,000 homes and busi­nesses in Mo­sul alone. Ex­trem­ism re­mains a daily threat while al­le­ga­tions of vote-rig­ging in north­ern Kur­dish re­gions have raised the prospect of vi­o­lence. Nu­mer­ous communities lack jobs, util­i­ties and ser­vices.

Low turnout re­flects voter ap­a­thy in a coun­try be­dev­illed by years of vi­o­lence and power grabs. It is im­per­a­tive that po­lit­i­cal jostling does not stand in the way of ef­fec­tive change and what­ever government emerges from a pre­car­i­ous pe­riod puts the needs of or­di­nary Iraqis front and cen­tre.


An Iraqi elec­toral com­mis­sion worker in­spects re­sults of in Na­jaf, where Mo­q­tada Al Sadr’s list dom­i­nated the poll

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