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
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