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Iraq's al-Sadr says next government will be 'inclusive'

Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has sought to reassure Iraqis about their next government. [Getty]

Date of publication: 20 May, 2018

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Muqtada al-Sadr, whose coalition won the largest number of seats in Iraq's parliamentary elections, has sought to reassure Iraqis about their next government, saying it will be "inclusive".

Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose coalition won the largest number of seats in Iraq's parliamentary elections, has sought to reassure Iraqis about their next government, saying it will be "inclusive" and mindful of their needs.

No single bloc won a majority in the 12 May vote, raising the prospect of weeks or even months of negotiations to agree on a government. Major political players began talks soon after the election’s partial results were announced last week.

The latest round was held late on Saturday night between al-Sadr and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, whose bloc made a surprisingly poor showing in the election.

Speaking after the talks, al-Sadr said the first postelection meeting between the two "sends a clear and comforting message to the Iraqi people: Your government will take care of you and will be inclusive, we will not exclude anyone. We will work toward reform and prosperity."

He did not elaborate, or provide details about what he and al-Abadi discussed.

Al-Sadr, whose followers fought US forces in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, won 54 of the chamber's 329 seats. Al-Abadi's "Victory" bloc took 42 and a coalition of government and Iranian-backed paramilitary forces came in second.

Constrained by Iran?

Salah al-Obeidi, a spokesman for al-Sadr's Sa'eroun political bloc, told The Associated Press that Iraq's sovereignty was going to be the new government's "guiding principle."

"We warn any other country that wants to involve itself in Iraqi politics not to cross the Iraqi people," he said.

However, even as al-Sadr is in position to nominate a prime minister and set the political agenda for the next four years, he will find his choices limited by Iran.

The Middle East's pre-eminent Shia power has a direct line with some of Iraq's most powerful politicians, and it is trying to rally them as a bloc to undercut al-Sadr.

Al-Sadr's rise threatens Iran's claim to speak on behalf of Iraq’s Shia majority, a precedent that could fuel independent Shia movements elsewhere. Also at stake are top ministerial posts — political appointments that are a source of patronage and police and military power.

Al-Sadr himself has kept a relatively low public profile. But in a public relations move that appeared to be directed at Iran, he appeared on Thursday with rival cleric Ammar al-Hakim, who has drifted away from Iran’s orbit in recent years, to say the two men share similar visions for the next government.

Tehran has dispatched its top regional military commander, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, to pull together a coalition to counterbalance al-Sadr, according to an Iraqi Shia militia commander who is familiar with the meetings.

"Iran won't accept the creation of a Shiite bloc that is a threat to its interests. It’s a red line," said the commander, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions.

Al-Sadr's relationship with Iran is a complicated one. Though he has maintained close ties with Iran's political and religious leadership, in recent years he has denounced the flow of Iranian munitions to Shia militias in Iraq, all the while maintaining his own so-called Peace Brigades in the holy city of Samarra, north of Baghdad.

Al-Sadr's former Mehdi Army militia, which spearheaded an insurgency against the US, clashed violently with the Iran-backed Badr Organization last decade.

Iran is also rankled by al-Sadr's recent overtures to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which are locked in proxy wars with Tehran in Syria and Yemen.

Al-Sadr met with the crown princes of Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi in August, leading Iran's hard-line Keyhan newspaper to accuse al-Sadr of "selling himself" to the house of Saud.

His top showing at the ballot box means the next prime minister will have to introduce a civil service law that al-Sadr has championed as an antidote to Iraq's endemic corruption, said Kirk Sowell, the publisher of Inside Iraqi Politics, a political and security newsletter. But that doesn't mean the Cabinet or parliament will sign off on it.

"There's not going to be a functioning majority," said Sowell. "It'll be a hodge-podge, coalition government, and it’s not going to be any more stable than the last one."

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