As It Happens

Anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr could play kingmaker in Iraq

Muqtada al-Sadr was once known as the most dangerous man in Iraq but may now become the country's kingmaker.

Journalist Jane Arraf weighs in on the elections in Iraq and what they mean for the U.S. and Iran

Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr shows his ink-stained finger after casting his vote at a polling station during the parliamentary election. (Alaa al-Marjani/Reuters)

He was once dubbed "the most dangerous man in Iraq." Now, he's being touted as the country's best hope for non-sectarianism.

Muqtada al-Sadr first became a force in Iraqi politics in 2003, when he led a militia to fight against the American occupation.

Last week, his political coalition secured a stunning lead in the country's national elections — Iraq's first election since ISIS was defeated.     

With over 90 per cent of votes counted in 16 of Iraq's 18 provinces, Sadr's bloc has won more seats than both the incumbent prime minister and his Iran-backed rival.

The unofficial election results place Sadr in the unlikely position of a potential kingmaker —  making him a key player in deciding who will lead the country.

As It Happens host Carol Off spoke to NPR's international correspondent Jane Arraf about Sadr's election win. Here is part of their conversation.

Jane, how do you explain Muqtada al-Sadr's surge in popularity?

I guess you have to look at the other choices. Voters looked around and thought, "Those guys are really terrible. I'm not going to vote for them again."

The voter turnout was really low, 44 per cent versus around 60 per cent for the last one. When I was asking people whether they were going to vote for the elections, a surprising number of them said, "No." They'd tried these politicians. They didn't want to have anything to do with them.

So, Sadr was offering them something that other people were not — a remedy to their economic problems. But the main reason that he did so well is that the prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, did badly. That accounts for a lot of Sadr's good showing in this election.

Supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr gather during a protest. (Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters)

People will remember the name from just after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. He was known as a preacher but he had the Mahdi Army as his followers, who attacked the U.S. and British soldiers. There was all this sectarian violence against the Sunni population in Iraq and kidnapping, racketeering, everything. I mean, it was an extraordinary time and that's what most people will probably associate with him. But he's not that person now, I presume.

When I ask his people how he turns from that sort of militia leader into a nationalist reaching out to Sunnis, reaching out to other countries, the answer I get is: he is what the times required.

Those were very sectarian times. It was a time when Iraq was literally invaded by the U.S. and its allies, and those times have passed. So, he has become the closest thing to a nationalist — and he is certainly a populist leader — that there is going. He's formed an alliance with communists and secularists. He has openly said that Iran should not control Iraq. He has obviously openly opposed the U.S.

The big question really is: if he does get more power, will he be able to actually make a difference? Because Iraq is facing immense problems. It's had three bitter years of fighting ISIS and a large part of the country is in ruins. It's immensely corrupt. These are challenges that take an actual functional government with experienced people and that's something that he does not have for the most part.

Iraqi supporters of Sairun list celebrate with Iraqi flags and a picture of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. (Alaa al-Marjani/Reuters)

And so can he deliver on what he is promising?

I think we have to remember that the elections are just the first part in forming the government. So, because no one political grouping have enough seats to actually form a government, this will be a coalition government. So, the bargaining is just starting.

He is, in a sense, a kingmaker. But he didn't run for parliament himself so he won't be prime minister and there is a chance that if the other parties group together and oppose his coalition, they could come out on top. So, all bets are really off until the bargaining is done.

And do we have all the election results at this point?

There are two provinces that are not accounted for and just a short while ago the head of the election commission gave a press conference in which he said there were gunmen surrounding the election centres in the disputed city of Kirkuk and a nearby city. He said, essentially, the election workers were being held hostage. That doesn't appear to be entirely true. But the interesting thing is he has called for armed forces to be sent in because this is such a big problem. So, that's just a small indication of how contentious it is. 

If Muqtada al-Sadr is the dominant personality in this final election, what does that mean for Iran? Sadr's relationship with Tehran and the Madhi Army was, well they were were heavily reliant on Iranian expertise. What does this change for Iran?

Sadr himself has an uneasy relationship with Iran. But there is another grouping ... headed by a militia leader who has close ties to Iran. These militias were activated and formed, in some cases, four years ago. They answered a religious call to fight ISIS when the Iraqi army couldn't. So they did and they've made immense sacrifices. They've lost more than 7,000 people, just the militias alone. And so, some of them went into politics. They've done very well but they are closely tied to Iran for the most part. So, Iran is not just keeping a close eye on government formation here, it is involved in part of it.

The results are still not official but many supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr are already celebrating. (Thaier al-Sudani/Reuters)

My final question is about the United States. Muqtada al-Sadr was once public enemy number one. What has been the Trump White House response to this election?

This is so fascinating because they welcomed the elections. They had to. I mean, how could they not, right? They invaded and toppled Saddam, partly so that this place could have elections. So they welcomed the elections. 

The U.S. says it doesn't support a candidate. It doesn't get involved. Of course it supports a candidate. It has heavily supported Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. He has been in favour of pretty much everything that they've wanted to do. He's supported having U.S. troops here. He supports economic policies that the U.S. thinks are correct.

They are in kind of a bind. They can't say so publicly but the U.S. and European countries are quite concerned about what happens next because there is so much at stake here and everything is in play. It's really quite unclear what is going to happen with this government.

Written by John McGill. Interview produced by Donya Ziaee. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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