Pro-Iran groups seen losing Iraq election and firebrand cleric winning

An alliance of Iraqi candidates representing Shiite militias supported by neighboring Iran has turned out to be the biggest loser in the country’s national elections over the weekend, according to the partial results published on Monday.

The results, published one by one online, also showed that the bloc of Iraqi populist Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr holds the majority of parliamentary seats and leads in several of Iraq’s 18 provinces, including the capital, Baghdad. Al-Sadr, a loner who led an uprising against US forces after the 2003 invasion, appeared to have increased his movement’s seats in the 329-member parliament from 54 in 2018 to more than 70.

With 94 percent of the ballot boxes counted, none of the competing political blocs seemed on the way to gaining a majority in parliament and consequently appointing a prime minister. But as the results stand, the al-Sadr bloc will be able to take a leading role in the political horse trade to find a compromise candidate and set the political agenda for the next four years.

Shiite groups in Iraq have dominated governments and government formation since the 2003 US-led invasion that overthrew the Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein and catapulted the Shiite majority and the Kurds to power.

Sunday’s elections came several months earlier in response to mass protests in 2019 that toppled a government and showed widespread anger at political leaders many Iraqis say have enriched themselves at the country’s expense.

But a record-breaking low turnout suggested that a vote conceived as an opportunity to wrest control out of the ruling elite would do little to oust sectarian religious parties that had been in power since 2003.

Al-Sadr’s group is just one of several who need to start negotiations in order to form a coalition that can dominate parliament and form a government.

Al-Sadr broadcast a speech on state television live claiming victory and promising a nationalist government without foreign interference.

“We applaud any messages that do not interfere in Iraq’s internal affairs,” he said, adding that the street celebrations would take place “without arms”.

The unpredictable populist cleric has been a dominant figure and often kingmaker in Iraqi politics since the US invasion.

He opposes any foreign interference in Iraq, be it through the USA, against which he fought an uprising after 2003, or neighboring Iran, which he criticizes for its close involvement in Iraqi politics.

An Iraqi woman shows her ink-stained finger after casting her vote in Baghdad on Sunday.Wissam Al-Okaili / Reuters

However, according to officials close to him, Al-Sadr is regularly in Iran and has called for US troops to be withdrawn from Iraq, where Washington maintains around 2,500 men in the fight against the Islamic State.

The initial results also showed that reform-minded candidates emerging from the 2019 protests had won multiple seats in the 329-member parliament.

Iran-backed parties with links to militia groups alleged to have killed some of the nearly 600 people killed in the protests suffered a blow and won fewer seats than in the last election last year, according to initial results and local officials 2018.

The Kurdish parties won 61 seats, including 32 for the Kurdish Democratic Party, which dominates the government of the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq, and 15 for its rival, the Kurdistan Patriotic Union party.

The Taqaddum coalition of Sunni Parliament President Mohammed al-Halbousi won 38 seats, the state-run Iraqi news agency reported, making it the second largest in parliament. Maliki’s State of Law coalition came in third overall with 37.

Elections in Iraq since 2003 have been followed by lengthy negotiations that can last months and serve to distribute government posts among the dominant parties.

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