Sadr’s Unlikely Political Transformation in Iraq Confounds Both the U.S. and Iran

Sadr’s Unlikely Political Transformation in Iraq Confounds Both the U.S. and Iran
Supporters of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr celebrate in Tahrir Square, Baghdad, Iraq, May 14, 2018 (AP photo by Hadi Mizban).

Iraqis went to the polls last weekend in an election that was closely watched by outside powers, especially Iran and the United States. Both Tehran and Washington had hoped voters would solidify their own respective plans for Iraq by choosing their preferred candidates to lead the next government in Baghdad. The results came as a shock.

It’s early in the government-forming process and surprises could still occur. But the election alone suggests the biggest geopolitical loser from Iraq’s latest democratic exercise was neighboring Iran. That doesn’t mean, however, that the U.S. found much to celebrate in the results.

The top vote-getter was the alliance led by the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The heir to a prominent family of politically influential clerics, Sadr became a household name around the world following the 2003 U.S. invasion and occupation, leading a fierce assault against American troops. Since then, however, Sadr has thoroughly transformed himself. The populist leader of a sectarian movement that included its own militia, the Mahdi Army, now appears to have left behind his sectarianism in favor of big-tent Iraqi nationalism. Heading into last week’s election, his coalition called for rejecting the influence of foreign powers, eradicating corruption and putting Iraqi interests first.

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