Globe: A Nationalist Victory in Iraq

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He was labeled a degenerate – and for good reason. In 2007, Muqtada al-Sadr’s war was coming to an end. Since 2004, the Shi’ite cleric served as the spiritual leader of a militia group of his followers, the Mahdi Army, as they fought against American forces in Sadr City, a suburb of Baghdad. He opposed both the Sunni-led Saddam Hussein regime and the American-led coalition – only he, so Sadr believed, could lead a new nationalist Iraq true to its Shi’ite nature. Sadr was not alone in this conviction; the cleric found an ally more than willing to contribute to his cause: Iran.

In what would be a precursor and to an extent, a training ground, for the campaign in Syria, Iranian forces trained Shi’ite militias that contributed greatly to the war against American forces in Iraq. Iran wanted to take the opportunity to deal a blow to their mortal Western enemy, and men like Sadr would be the vehicle for their proxy war.

But despite the support from Iran and a large amount of followers that adapted Sadr’s ideas, three years after his war began, Sadr was going to make an exit from Iraq. His forces were being defeated, he was being hunted, Iran had lost faith in his leadership, and many Iraqis looked down upon him. It was time to leave.

Now more than ten years after Sadr was defeated, the Shi’ite cleric is back – this time, he is on the cusp on being the most powerful politician in that country. What Sadr could not do by force, he was able to do via democracy. On May 12th, Iraq held parliamentary elections. The elections were observed with anxiety by American observers; on one side was the current prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, an American ally in the proxy conflict against Iran.

On the other side was Hadi Al-Amari, an Iranian ally in the proxy conflict against America. It was believed by many that the election could go either way – and it was believed that almost all that it would help determine the future of Iraq, and whether that nation would be an American or an Iranian proxy. What was not expected was that a nationalist-populist who once led a bloody campaign against American forces would win an upset victory. But May 12th, that’s exactly what happened.

Sadr has since modified his outlook on politics since his war against America. In what was once an uncompromising mentality towards rival factions in Iraqi politics, Sadr has become more willing to work with other political groups. Sadr has also become decidedly more nationalistic; Sadr opposed both the United States and Iran – which sends both nations into a scramble for influence in Iraq.

His victory puts the United States in an awkward position. Though more moderate, Sadr is still antagonist towards America. With the announcement of the move of the America embassy to Jerusalem in late 2017, Sadr called for the “liberation” of Jerusalem, and compared the move as a “declaration of war” on Islam. After Sadr’s victory in the election, reports came out of American representatives meeting with Sadr. Sadr denied that he met with the Americans. All this, and not to mention his forces once waged war against the United States. While not pro-American, he is seen as an enemy of Iran.

While it is not a total victory – his coalition has not won enough seats to win a clear majority – Sadr now does hold the most seats in the Iraqi parliament. It will take a few weeks to build a governing coalition since no party won the clear majority.