May 15, 2018

IntelBrief: U.S. Misreads Iraq Again 

Followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, seen in the poster, celebrate in Tahrir Square, Baghdad, Iraq, early Monday, May 14, 2018. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban) .
  • Results announced on May 14 showed an unexpected outcome in the Iraqi parliamentary elections.
  • Candidates under the Sairoon ticket of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr won the most seats in the election, though they were short of an outright majority.
  • While performing well in Mosul, candidates of U.S.-backed Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s ticket finished with the third-most votes.
  • The U.S. continually reads Iraq through the eyes of its own foreign policy; the election showed the importance of local Iraqi issues and organization.


The May 13 parliamentary elections in Iraq showed that local issues, personalities, and organization are at play in Iraq’s elections. The election results, released on May 14, highlighted the limits of U.S. influence in that country. The U.S. supported the ticket of Haider al-Abadi, the current prime minister, hoping to build upon the relatively closer ties between Washington and Baghdad built over the last few years during the fight against the so-called Islamic State. The U.S. has recently aimed for pragmatism, providing substantial but less-visible military support to the Iraqi security services, and supporting al-Abadi in an equally substantial, yet less visible, fashion. The U.S. knows it is seen as a foreign invader in much of Iraq and has sought to build a sustainable relationship with al-Abadi. Still, the election results were surprising for the U.S., and perhaps for many Iraqis as well.

The al-Abadi ticket finished third in the elections. The Sairoon ticket of Moqtada al-Sadr finished with the most votes, an outcome that would have once been seen by the U.S. as either impossible or catastrophic. Yet the results show an unsurprising impact of a ticket focused on anti-corruption and rejecting the big blocs that have failed over the last 15 years. The results likely won’t be that negative for the U.S., which overstates the manipulative influence of neighboring Iran in an increasingly nationalistic Iraq.

A long-time vocal opponent of the U.S. presence in Iraq, al-Sadr is also a rare Shiite public figure who has directly criticized Iran’s operations in neighboring Syria. Al-Sadr has been in a multi-year transformation, from a ‘firebrand cleric’ to an advocate for anti-corruption efforts in Iraqi politics. He also made a high-profile visit to Saudi Arabia in 2017, a trip that would have been unimaginable a decade prior. While he still objects to the presence of U.S. troops stationed in Iraq, he supports the partnership of Baghdad and Washington in the still-ongoing fight against the Islamic State. This, too, represents a significant shift.

It is uncertain how the election results will play out in the building of a coalition government, and whether al-Abadi will remain as prime minister. One likely scenario is that al-Sadr might form a coalition with al-Abais’s bloc, which would leave al-Abadi in office. Al-Sadr is less likely to form a coalition with the second-place ticket, Fatah, which is led by Hadi al-Ameri, the head of the Badr Movement. That ticket will likely work with the fourth-place ticket of former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki to form the main opposition bloc, as well as the most pro-Iranian bloc. The U.S. now finds itself in the bizarre situation of hoping that Moqtada al-Sadr, the former head of one of the most effective and dangerous anti-U.S. militias during the Iraq occupation—the Mahdi Army—will form an effective political alliance with al-Abadi in what it—and many Iraqi voters—hope could be a more technocratic, less corrupt, and less Iranian-Influenced government.


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