An electoral alliance comprised of Shia militants and communists, and backed by Saudi Arabia, appears to have prevailed in Saturday’s Iraqi parliamentary elections, based on early results.
Though anti-American Shia fundamentalists, secular communists, and U.S.-allied Sunni Arab monarchies may seem like strange bedfellows, this pact serves as a good illustration of the increasing complexity of the situation in the Middle East as regional allegiances continue to shift.
Firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Sadrist Movement started as the political wing of the Mahdi Army, an Iran-aligned Shia fundamentalist death squad which led the fight against U.S. forces in 2004 and was accused of persecuting Iraqi Sunnis. Though al-Sadr later renounced violence and agreed to participate in politics, his rabble-rousing supporters continued to protest against the U.S.-installed Iraqi government, which they regarded as unrepresentative of the Iraqi people. After the Nouri al-Maliki government brought Iraq closer to Iran, al-Sadr turned against his former backers, and combined socially conservative and populist ideas with support for Iraqi nationalism based on Arab identity. Last summer, this led him into the arms of UAE leader Mohammed bin Zayed and Saudi leader Mohammed bin Salman, who have both stressed Arab solidarity in face of regional rivals such as Iran and Turkey.
Al-Sadr went on to cut a deal with the Iraqi Communist Party, which the United States had attempted to suppress during the Cold War. Given Al-Sadr’s own largely working class base, the two factions were able to find common ground on tackling government corruption and populist spending mea sures, and now appear to have succeeded in presenting the incumbent administration of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi as out of touch with ordinary Iraqis.
Despite his friendship with the Gulf princes, al-Sadr has maintained his strident opposition to any U.S. involvement in Iraq, which may further complicate ongoing U.S. counterterrorism operations in the war-torn country. The United States had hoped for the re-election of al-Abadi, a pro-American liberal, who appeared to have a strong lead in the opinion polls that were conducted prior to the election. Ultimately, however, his corruption and perceived lack of patriotism pushed him into a distant third place.
That being said, this remains a major blow to Iran, whose pick, al-Maliki, was also trounced by the upstart al-Sadr, who ate into al-Maliki’s base of deeply religious Shia voters. Al-Sadr’s harsh rhetoric towards the Iranians and coziness with their arch-rivals in the Gulf will likely lead to a sharp deterioration in relations between the two neighbors in the months to come.