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Former U.S. foe likely to emerge as kingmaker in Iraqi election — with tacit American backing

A child walks past a large poster of Iraq's populist Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, in Sadr City, east of the capital Baghdad, on July 15. (Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images)
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BAGHDAD — Framed beneath glaring floodlights, the Sadrist campaign rally bursts with noise and color. Supporters pump emerald flags aloft as an acolyte sings the candidate's praises through tinny speakers.

“We don’t do politics like the others do,” he bellows. “Voting for the Sadrists will bring you hope.”

The local Sadrist candidate, Hakim al-Zamili, places his hand to his chest with a small smile. Then with a nod he is on his feet and striding toward the stage. Only one week left until our victory, he tells the cheering crowd.

As Iraq readies for parliamentary elections on Sunday, the sixth ballot since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion installed a new political system, it’s the party of renowned Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr that looks set to be kingmaker. Taking the largest share of the Iraqi parliament’s 329 seats would mark the culmination of Sadr’s years-long effort to consolidate power at the ballot box, on the streets and throughout the civil service.

Sadr is a storied figure both here and abroad, with a history of agitation against U.S. troops after their invasion and often fierce loyalty from tens of thousands of pious and working-class followers.

But he is also something of a shape-shifter; in the years since 2003, the cleric has positioned himself variously as a sectarian militia leader, a revolutionary figure and a nationalist who can unify the country. At times he has relied on Iranian support, but today he publicly rejects the influence of Iraq’s most powerful neighbor.

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Now, for the first time, his movement’s senior leadership say that they want to use their likely dominance, forecast by voter surveys, to choose the country’s prime minister.

“You can’t have a prime minister without the support of the Sadrists now,” said Nasser Al-Rubaie, head of the movement’s political wing. Across the spectrum, including in the office of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, Iraqi politicians agree.

It remains unclear whether Sadr’s movement would maintain its current support for Kadhimi and back him for a second term in office. The ultimate decision would also require buy-in from powerful Iranian-backed and Kurdish political groupings.

Despite Sadr’s fraught history with the West, his party probably would ascend with at least tacit backing from Washington.

“They have sought increasing international legitimacy as a state-bearing party. This is why we've seen the Sadrists interacting much more with Western countries, including the Americans and the Europeans,” said Lahib Higel, an analyst with the International Crisis Group. “Sadr has been selling himself as a viable option, and a central one in Iraqi politics.”

 A senior Western official said, “I think at this point we view Sadr as a nationalist who is just better than the other options.” The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk with the press.

In recent months, the Sadrists have walked a more careful line than Iraqi parties aligned with Iran, which have called for the expulsion of the remaining 2,500 U.S. troops in Iraq.

“We are against the existence of any foreign forces on Iraqi soil. When it comes to logistics support with training, equipment and airspace, that is not a political issue. We leave the decision on that to those who are specialized in these matters,” said Rubaie, indicating that a noncombat role for U.S. troops could be acceptable.

A rise to dominance

The Sadrists have cast themselves as the protector of a swath of Shiite working-class Iraqis. Sadr’s father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, was a leading figure in the resistance against Sunni Muslim dictator Saddam Hussein and was killed for it. After the U.S.-led invasion, Sadr’s Mahdi Army won popular support for defying the American occupation.

Today, Sadr’s movement provides many supporters with jobs and services across ministries and businesses it controls, as well as employment in the ranks of its armed wing, Saraya al-Salam.

The Sadrists have consolidated their influence throughout the Iraqi government by taking control of key positions within the civil service. According to research by the London-based Chatham House think tank, Sadrist loyalists now hold the largest share of these positions, known as “special grades,” which has in turn allowed them to divert vast amount of public resources for the movement’s own purposes.

To ensure the money keeps flowing, the Sadrists have won control of the body that fills civil service positions, at times endorsing technocratic ministers without party affiliation who in practice have less authority than the civil servants below them.

“On day one, I realized that there were just stacks of contracts that they were waiting for me to sign,” said one such former minister, speaking on the condition of anonymity out of concern for his security. “They just wanted the rubber stamp.”

Over the years, Sadr’s group has been accused by government officials and human rights monitors of widespread abuses. During the civil war, the Mahdi Army ran death squads. Zamili, the political candidate, was imprisoned for allegedly using his position as health minister to divert resources for sectarian kidnapping and murder. More recently, Saraya al-Salam, have been accused of extortion and assassinating political opponents.

The Sadrists are the dominant force in the Health Ministry, and this summer, Sadr briefly withdrew from the election campaign amid a public uproar after a pair of hospital fires in Baghdad and the southern city of Nasiriyah incinerated two wards of coronavirus patients. Corrupt government contracting, blamed on the Sadrists, has routinely left major hospitals without fire safety measures, according to researchers.

Dwindling trust

Kadhimi has hailed the decision to call early parliamentary elections as a response to street protests urging the overthrow of the political system. Security forces quashed those demonstrations with deadly force, killing more than 600 people in a matter of months.

Trust between Iraq’s people and its politicians has cratered over recent years, and turnout at the polls is likely to be among the lowest in the country’s history, according to voter surveys.

Even the Sadrists seem concerned. On Sunday, a somber-faced Sadr made a rare public appearance alongside one of the movement’s candidates. Hours later, he tweeted that every voter should bring 10 more with them to the polls.

“Sadrist electoral tactics have been particularly aggressive this election campaign, indicating a slight desperation within the movement over disillusionment, particularly among the younger generation of Sadrists,” said Ben Robin-D’Cruz, a postdoctoral fellow at Aarhus University in Denmark who studies the group.

But the group is still probably the best positioned. “The Sadrists retain a competitive edge,” he said. In the 2018 election, low voter turnout helped a Sadr-led coalition boost its number of seats by 20 to 54 — more than any other grouping.

At Zamili’s rally in Baghdad’s sprawling district of Sadr City last week, supporters said that he and the Sadrist movement he’s part of would provide them a greater sense of dignity and belonging than other political groups.

“No one else can save Iraq,” Hayder al-Helfi, 47, commented as he picked through the crowd that had gathered on the turf pitch.

Amal Latif, a 40-year-old widow and mother of four, said that Zamili was known in the neighborhood for opening his house to supporters so they could ask for help with their problems. “We’re so poor, we need help from someone,” she said, clutching the Sadrists’ emerald flag to her chest. A campaign staffer stood close by her as she spoke. He later said that she had been paid to attend the rally.

As the event wound down and supporters flooded to the exits, the floodlights glared brighter than anything else on the streets around them. The streetlights were out. Cars edged past potholes. In the darkness, volunteers dressed in party tabards were laying the stones for a new sidewalk while a former voter watched on.

“They always do this around election time,” sighed Ahmed Ali, a government worker. “Let’s see what they do for this place after the elections.”

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