Muqtada al Sadr during a speech delivered Monday night after the preliminary results of the Iraqi elections were released.ALAA AL-MARJANI (Reuters)

The populist Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr has claimed victory in the Iraqi legislative elections last Sunday. According to the Iraqi state news agency INA, his group, Sairún (Walkers), has won 73 of the 329 seats in the new Parliament. Even more significant: Their rivals from the Al Fateh (Conquest) coalition, which groups together several pro-Iranian parties, have remained only at 14. The militias that support them have denounced fraud this Tuesday and are threatening an armed response, even before they the Electoral Commission announce the official results.

Al Sadr, who was not a candidate because he has always remained on the sidelines of political office, is at the forefront of the only genuinely popular movement that emerged after the 2003 US invasion, whose troops he fought. Since then, he has reinforced his nationalist message (by broadening his opposition to any foreign influence, including that of neighboring Iran) and tried to present himself as a reformist who can fulfill the demands of the protest movement (Tischrin). It is not clear that he has support outside of the more modest layers among the Shiite Arabs. It even arouses suspicions and even hostility among the elites of that community.

In his speech last night, the cleric said that the next government “is going to give priority to the interests of Iraq.” What seems like a no-brainer is worrying for pro-Iranian formations whose defeat has been humiliating: They have lost 33 seats compared to 2018, reflecting the Iraqis’ fed up with Iranian interference in their country. The nervousness that this result has caused is reflected in the visit to Baghdad by the head of the expeditionary force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, General Ismael Ghaani, on Monday, denied by Tehran and Baghdad, but taken for granted by Iraqi political lies.

Hours later, the Shiite party coordinator of which Al Fateh is a member rejected the preliminary results and announced that she was going to appeal them. “We do not accept these fabricated results and we are going to vigorously defend the votes of our candidates and electors,” said, for his part, the leader of the ranks of Al Fateh, Hadi al Ameri, considered the man of Iran in Iraq.

The leader of Kataeb Hezbollah, one of the main pro-Iranian militias, went further and urged the Popular Mobilization Forces (FMP, the umbrella that groups all the militias) to be ready to defend their “sacred entity”. His words would be a tantrum if they did not come from a powerful armed group with a long history of intimidation and attacks, which the United States and other countries consider a terrorist organization. Some analysts have warned of the risk of escalation.

To the irritation of the militias, Al Sadr defended in his speech that “the state must have a monopoly on the use of weapons.” In addition, he hinted that he was willing to maintain good relations with Washington as long as he did not interfere in the internal affairs of Iraq or in the formation of the Government. Such a possibility is anathema to pro-Iranian groups, which pride themselves on being the spearhead of “resistance” to the United States and often act against this country on behalf of Iran.

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The 73 seats won by the sadristas They are a significant advance over the 54 who also placed them first in the previous Parliament, but they are still far from the 165 needed to appoint the prime minister. Alliances are complicated. In second place, with 41 deputies, is the Sunni block Taqadum (Progress), led by the current president of Parliament, Mohamed al Halbusi. This result gives that community its greatest influence since the fall of Saddam Hussein. In 2018, Al Halbusi allied himself with the political wing of the pro-Iranian militias, although his pragmatism suggests that he is open to other possibilities. And third, the State of Law of former Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki, also close to Iran and who gets along like cat and dog with Al Sadr. Al Maliki is already maintaining contacts to become an alternative.

It remains to be seen what role the new parties and the independents that emerged from the October 2019 protests could play. Despite the high abstention rate (only 41% of registered voters voted, according to the Electoral Commission, which is equivalent to 34 % of potential voters), several of them have won seats. Imtidad, led by activist Alaa al Rikaabi, will have a dozen deputies.

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