With nationalist Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his political allies now in the driver’s seat in Iraq’s parliament, U.S. military planners and diplomats are grappling with what the former militia leader’s dramatic rise to power means for U.S. policy — and whether he turns out to be the Iranian puppet many had feared.
The answer will have major repercussions for the Trump administration’s plans throughout the Middle East, and for Mr. Trump’s hopes of wrapping up the military mission in Iraq without ceding the field to political forces hostile to Washington and its allies in the region.
Analysts and former U.S. officials say Mr. al-Sadr, best known for leading his Shiite Mahdi Army in a yearslong resistance to American forces after the 2003 U.S. invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein, should be treated with extreme caution as he seeks to form a coalition government on the heels of a surprisingelection victory last week.
Mr. al-Sadr’s more recent moves — including leading a popular campaign against government corruption and making a surprise trip in July to discuss better relations with Saudi Arabia, the leader of the region’s Sunni bloc of Arab states — complicates the picture.
Mr. al-Sadr’s Sa’eroun alliance captured 54 out of 328 seats in the May 12 parliamentary vote, with the Iranian-backed Fatah alliance coming in second place. The Victory alliance of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, whose government reached out to Iraq’s minority Sunni and Kurdish populations and worked closely with the U.S. in the defeat of Islamic State, finished a disappointing third, giving Mr. al-Sadr the right to assemble a governing majority.
Questions about Mr. al-Sadr’s vow to kick all American troops out of Iraq, the extent of his ties to anti-U.S. hard-liners in neighboring Iran and whether he has truly rejected the violent ideology he spearheaded more than a decade ago swirl around the election winner, as do fears that he, like Mr. al-Abadi, will be unable to keep Iraq from deteriorating into sectarian violence and more bloodshed.
“An important aspect of Sadr’s win was that he positioned himself as a reformer who would elevate Iraq, rejecting both Iran and U.S. dominance. It will be critical to see how that plays out as he tries to put together a coalition to form the next government,” Nancy Lindborg, president of the U.S. Institute of Peace, said in an interview. “Will he fulfill the inclusive cross-sectarian rhetoric of his campaign or fall again into the sectarianism that laid the seeds for ISIS?”
Iran has reacted cautiously to the election results, in part a reflection of the uncertainty over which a governing coalition will emerge. Given the vagaries of the Iraqi system — and the fact that Mr. al-Sadr’s “win” gave his faction control of only 17 percent of the parliament, the policies of the next Baghdad government may take a while to sort out, said Kenneth Pollack, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
“Since Sadr only won such a narrow plurality, his ability to determine that coalition — let alone dictate and dominate it — is going to be very limited,” Mr. Pollack wrote in a postelection analysis.
More moderate tone
After years at the helm of the violent anti-American resistance in Iraq, Mr. al-Sadr fled the country for Iran in 2007. Upon his return in 2011, he adopted a much more moderate tone and began recasting himself as a proponent of peace. That approach laid the groundwork for the political rise that resulted in last week’s victory.
Throughout the Iraqi campaign, Mr. al-Sadr went to great lengths to distance himself from Iran and tried to head off a remake of his image as a close ally of Tehran.
But former U.S. intelligence officers question whether the conversion is genuine. To the extent he has any true allegiances at all, they lie with Shiite Iran.
“Sadr’s strong rhetoric against the U.S., strong rhetoric against Iran, is a smokescreen,” said Michael Pregent, a former intelligence officer specializing in the Middle East and North Africa. “If there is a dossier on Sadr, [Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei has it.”
Still, Mr. al-Sadr’s political opportunism may also present an opportunity for the U.S., which is trying to limit Tehran’s influence on its neighbor. Because he was not personally on the ballot, Mr. al-Sadr has a chance to be kingmaker but is not eligible to be prime minister.
Mr. al-Sadr “is easy to move,” politically speaking, said Mr. Pregent, noting his visits to Saudi Arabia — Iran’s main rival in the region — to fill his campaign coffers prior to the election.
“The Saudis gave him money with no strings attached,” said Mr. Pregent, now a senior fellow at the Washington-based Hudson Institute.
In a sign that the U.S. is not writing off its chances, the Trump administration reportedly has opened up back-channel communications with the cleric and his top aides.
American officials in Baghdad reportedly used a series of intermediaries to investigate Mr. al-Sadr’s positions on a long-term U.S. military presence in Iraq, a top al-Sadr aide told the Reuters news agency Wednesday.
“They asked what the position of the Sadrist movement will be when they come to power. Are they going to reinvent or invoke the Mahdi Army or re-employ them? Are they going to attack American forces in Iraq?” said Dhiaa al-Asadi, a senior member of Mr. al-Sadr’s Sa’eroun alliance.
He said there is no returning to the days when the Mahdi Army represented a private militia under Mr. al-Sadr’s control in defiance of the central government.
Some analysts say the U.S. effort to try to work with its onetime adversary could prove fruitful.
“On an individual basis, will there be individuals in the military or even leaders in the Department of Defense that have personal attitudes towards him? I think that might obviously be a practical challenge. But the United States had already decided to work with him” after his return to Iraq and his rejection of violence, said Andrea Taylor, a fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
“It has the potential to be a really good option,” she said. “It’s not an option anyone would have expected a decade ago, but at this point, since 2011, when al-Sadr came out rejecting violence as a means for resistance, he’s really been true in many ways — at least in all apparent ways — to that commitment.”
Ms. Taylor said U.S. leaders should view Mr. al-Sadr with “cautious optimism” — an approach that by no means forgets his past but one that recognizes his unique standing in the country today that could help stabilize Iraq in the long term.
Working with Mr. al-Sadr could prove the most effective way to prevent a power vacuum that ultimately is filled by Iran, she said.
“If the U.S. chooses not to engage with Sadr, not to support him in forming an inclusive government … Iran will be the first actor to win,” Ms. Taylor said.