It would be tempting to picture the Iraqi parliamentary elections last Sunday as a geopolitical game-changer. Well, its complicated in more ways than one.
Lets start with the abstention rate. Of the 22 million eligible voters able to choose 329 members of Parliament from 3,227 candidates and 167 parties, only 41% chose to cast their ballots, according to the Iraq High Electoral Commission (IHEC)
Then theres the notorious fragmentation of the Iraqi political chessboard. Initial results offer a fascinating glimpse. Of the 329 seats, the Sadrists led by Muqtada al-Sadr captured 73, a Sunni coalition has 43, a Shiite coalition led by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has 41 and the Kurd faction led by Barzani has 32.
In the current electoral setup, apart from Shiite coalitions, Sunnis have two main blocks and the Kurds have two main parties ruling autonomous Kurdistan: the Barzani gang which do an array of shady deals with the Turks and the Talabani clan, which is not much cleaner.
What happens next are extremely protracted negotiations, not to mention infighting. Once the results are certified, President Barham Saleh, in theory, has 15 days to choose the next Parliament speaker, and Parliament has one month to choose a President. Yet the whole process could last months.
The question is already in everyones minds in Baghdad: true to most forecasts, the Sadrists may eventually come up with the largest number of seats in Parliament. But will they be able to strike a solid alliance to nominate the next prime minister?
Then theres the strong possibility they may actually prefer to remain in the background, considering the next few years will be extremely challenging for Iraq all across the spectrum: on the security and counter-terrorism front; on the ghastly economic front; on the corruption and abysmal management front; and last but not least, on what exactly the expected US troop withdrawal really means. Iraqi Army and volunteer fighters launch an operation in Saladin Governorate against Daesh on March 2, 2015. Photo: AFP / Ali Mohammed / Anadolu Agency Iraqi Army and volunteer fighters launch an operation in Saladin Governorate against Daesh on March 2, 2015. Photo: AFP / Ali Mohammed / Anadolu Agency
The takeover of nearly one-third of Iraqi territory by Daesh from 2014 to 2017 may be a distant memory by now, but the fact remains that out of 40 million Iraqis, untold numbers have to deal on a daily basis with rampant unemployment, no healthcare, meager education opportunities and even no electricity.
The American withdrawal in December is a euphemism: 2,500 combat troops will actually be repositioned into unspecified non-combat roles. The overwhelming majority of Iraqis Sunni and Shiite wont accept it. A solid intel source Western, not West Asian assured me assorted Shiite outfits have the capability to overrun all American assets in Iraq in only six days, the Green Zone included.
To paint the main players in the Iraqi political scene as merely a Shiite Islamist-dominated ruling elite is crass Orientalism. They are not Islamist in a Salafi-jihadi sense.
Neither they have set up a political coalition tied to militias backed by Iran: thats a crass reductionism. These militias are in fact the Peoples Mobilization Units (PMUs), which were encouraged from the start by Grand Ayatollah Sistani to defend the nation against takfiris and Salafi-jihadis of the Daesh kind, and are legally incorporated into the Ministry of Defense.
What is definitely correct is that Muqtada al-Sadr is in a direct clash with the main Shiite political parties and especially those members involved in massive corruption.
Muqtada is a very complex character. Hes essentially an Iraqi nationalist. Hes opposed to any form of foreign interference, especially any lingering American troop presence in whatever shape or form. As a Shiite, he has to be an enemy of politicized, corrupt Shiite profiteers.
Elijah Magnier has done a sterling job focusing on the importance of a new fatwa on the elections issued by Grand Ayatollah Sistani, even more important than the Fatwa of Reform and Changes which addressed the occupation of northern Iraq by Daesh in 2014 and led to the creation of the PMUs. Top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Photo: AFP Top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Photo: AFP
In this new fatwa Sistani, based in the holy city of Najaf, compels voters to search for an honest candidate capable of bringing about real change and removing old and habitually corrupt candidates. Sistani believes the path of reform is possible and hope
must be exploited to remove the incompetent from ruling Iraq.
The conclusion is inescapable: vast swathes of the dispossessed in Iraq chose to identify this honest candidate as Muqtada al-Sadr.
Thats hardly surprising. Muqtada is the youngest son of the late, immensely respected Marja, Sayyid Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, who was assassinated by the Saddam Hussein apparatus. Muqtadas immensely popular base, inherited from his father, congregates the poor and the downtrodden, as I saw for myself numerous times, especially in Sadr City in Baghdad and in Najaf and Karbala.
During the Petraeus surge in 2007, I was received with open arms in Sadr City, talked to quite a few Sadrist politicians, saw how the Mahdi army operates both in the military and social realm and observed on the spot many of the Sadrist social projects.
In the Shiite collective unconscious Muqtada, at the time based in Najaf, made his mark in early 2004 as the first prominent Shiite religious leader cum politician to confront the US occupation head-on, and tell them to leave. The CIA put a price on his head. The Pentagon wanted to whack him in Najaf. Grand Ayatollah Sistani and his tens of millions of followers supported him.
Afterward, he spent a long time perfecting his theological chops in Qom while remaining in the background, always extremely popular and learning a thing or two about becoming politically savvy. Thats reflected in his current positioning: always opposed to the US occupation forces, but willing to work with Washington to expedite their departure.
Old (imperial) habits die hard. Out of his status of sworn enemy, routinely dismissed as a volatile cleric by Western media, at least now Muqtada is recognized in Washington as a key player and even an interlocutor.
Yet thats not the case of the Asaib Ahl al-Haq group, which was born of the Sadrist base. The Americans still dont understand that this is not a militia but a party: they are branded by the US as a terrorist organization.
US occupation actors also conveniently forget that the way Iraqs dysfunctional Parliament is configured, along confessional lines, is inextricably linked to the project of Western liberal democracy being bombed into Iraq.
Geopolitically, looking ahead, Iraqs future in West Asia from now on will be inextricably linked to Eurasian integration. Not surprisingly, Iran and Russia were among the first actors to officially congratulate Baghdad for running a smooth election.
Muqtada and the Sadrists will be very much aware that the Axis of Resistance Iran-Iraq-Syria-Hezbollah in Lebanon is strengthening by the minute. And that is directly linked to the Iran-Russia-China partnership strengthening Eurasia integration. But first things first: lets get an honest prime minister and Parliament in place.