- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 13, 2018

A Shiite Iraqi nationalist party and a party with close ties to Iran on Wednesday announced a political alliance that could complicate the Trump administration’s efforts to limit Tehran’s influence in the next Iraqi government.

Fiery Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr told reporters in Baghdad his Sairoon Alliance party, which got the most votes in Iraq’s elections, will work with Hadi al-Amiri of the Iran-backed Fatah coalition. The announcement was made in the Shia holy city of Najaf, exactly one month after Iraq held its fourth election since the fall of Saddam Hussein, a vote tainted by allegations of fraud and irregularities.

Mr. al-Sadr’s Sairoon Alliance, which included the Iraqi Communist Party and several secular candidates, won 54 seats in the 329-seat parliament, and Mr. al-Amiri’s Fatah coalition took 47 — still well short of the 165 seats needed to form a new government. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s Victory alliance, which worked closely with the Trump administration in turning back the threat from the Islamic State group and easing the country’s religious and ethnic strains, came in a disappointing third in the race with 42 seats.

The first place finish put Mr. al-Sadr in the driver’s seat for forming the next coalition government. The unexpected alliance with Mr. al-Amiri raised questions about the extent of Iranian influence in the war-torn nation, at a time when the U.S. and its leading allies in the region are seeking to contain Tehran.

“Iranian influence is already large enough, it is not going to get bigger. The question is whether the next government can curtail Iranian influence through political means, because they can’t do it through the military,” said Randa Slim, an expert on Iraq for the Middle East Institute.

Michael Knights, an Iraq analyst at the D.C.-based Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told the Abu Dhabi-based newspaper The National that the alliance could revive Iraq’s troubled sectarian history.

“The formation of a new Shia superbloc is predictable, but nonetheless represents a missed opportunity to do something new — a diverse majority government in which some Shia blocs are excluded — and a return to something familiar, the Shia megabloc,” Mr. Knights told the newspaper.

At the press conference, Mr. al-Sadr and Mr. al-Amiri said they wanted to expedite the formation of a new government and called on other parties to join them.

“We met to end the suffering of this nation and of the people. Our new alliance is a nationalist one,” Mr. al-Sadr told reporters.

After the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, Mr. al-Sadr became known for backing Shiite militia forces that confronted U.S. troops. Although once seen as close to Iran, in recent years he has positioned himself as an Iraqi nationalist who opposes foreign influence while crusading against government corruption at home.

By contrast, Mr. al-Amiri is widely seen as Iran’s closest ally in Iraq. He spent two years in exile in Iran during the reign of Saddam Hussein and his Fatah coalition consists of Shiite paramilitary fighters credited with helping drive Islamic State from the country.

Mr. al-Sadr and Mr. al-Amiri insisted that fighting corruption and poverty topped their joint agenda.

“Anti-corruption, anti poverty have always been a platform,” Ms. Slim said, “Sadr has always been consistent with this, and of all the coalitions he seems to be the one who has the most authentic voice.”

Despite questions about the legitimacy of the May 12 vote, including a recent fire at a warehouse holding a huge number of paper ballots, both Mr. al-Sadr and Prime Minister Abadi have opposed calls from some in Parliament to hold entirely new elections.

“The matter is exclusively in the hands of the judiciary, not politicians,” Mr. Abadi said Tuesday “The government and parliament don’t have the power to cancel the election.”

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