In Iraq's Election, It's Hard to Avoid Iran's Presence

(Bloomberg) -- Iraq’s first election since the defeat of Islamic State is a critical step for a country that could have disappeared from the map amid the jihadists’ onslaught. The Saturday vote was also a test of the regional influence wielded by Iran at a time when the U.S. is determined to rein it in.

The Islamic Republic’s role in its neighbor Iraq has steadily grown since the 2003 American invasion of Iraq ended Sunni domination and empowered majority Shiites. Fifteen years on, the three Shiite front-runners for the post of prime minister all enjoy good relations with Iran, and those with the closest ties believe President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the landmark Iranian nuclear agreement this week will boost their chances.

“The international and regional pressure on Iran and on Shiites makes Shiites retrench more to defend themselves,” said Saad al-Mutalibi, who’s running on a ticket led by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is close to Iran and is appealing to the Shiite identity politics that have dominated recent elections. “The anti-U.S. camp is getting stronger day by day because of U.S. mistakes.”

Deeply Fractured

But campaigning also saw multiple appeals to Iraqi nationalism as anger over years of sectarian conflict and rampant corruption have disillusioned voters and divided politicians. That means the outcome of the polls could be a deeply fractured parliament, and forming a government could take weeks if not months of negotiation. A messy coalition could hinder urgently needed post-war reconstruction that Iraq’s planning minister estimates will cost $88 billion.

A desire for security and better living conditions were foremost on the minds of some voters in Baghdad. The ballot boxes were closed at 6 p.m. and most results are likely on Sunday.

“People feel frustrated by the situation,” said Faleeha Hassan, 71, who was voting in the Karrada area of Baghdad. “I had three grandchildren killed in previous bomb attacks in Karrada.”

The country holds the world’s fifth-largest crude reserves, according to data from BP Plc, and is the second-largest producer in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

Unity Candidate

For Iran, too, the stakes are high as it looks to protect its interests in a corridor stretching from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean. It strengthened its position in Lebanon last week, where Hezbollah and allies cruised to an election victory. But Tehran’s deepening presence in Syria, where its militias prop up President Bashar al-Assad, is being militarily opposed by Israel. And the U.S. is poised to reimpose sweeping economic sanctions with the potential to sink an already struggling economy.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has sought to present himself as a unifying candidate by reaching out to religious minorities, and visiting Iran’s chief Middle East foe, Saudi Arabia. His Nasr slate of candidates includes Sunni tribal leaders and politicians, and is widely expected to come first in the voting.

A compromise candidate acceptable to both the U.S. and Iran, Abadi took power two months after the 2014 fall of Mosul alerted the world to the threat posed by Islamic State. With the critical support of U.S.-led air power and Iranian-backed militias, he oversaw the extremists’ defeat and has since sought to heal the nation’s rifts.

Wildcard Cleric

He’s facing stiff competition from at least two alliances seen as closer to Tehran. One is the Fatah group led by Hadi al-Amiri, head of an Iran-backed paramilitary force whose fighters played a prominent role in defeating Islamic State.

The other is Maliki, prime minister for eight years until he was forced out following the fall of Mosul. Though Maliki has a strong support base, history could haunt him. He presided over the government during the worst sectarian violence in Iraq, when Shiite militias ran amok, fueling anger that some observers say pushed disgruntled Sunnis into the arms of Islamic State.

There’s also a wildcard -- populist Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr whose Mahdi Army fought the American occupation following the fall of Saddam Hussein. He has allied himself with Iraq’s Communist Party as a nationalist champion of the poor, denouncing Iran’s deep reach, and could end up playing kingmaker.

Sadr has won the attention of Iran’s Gulf rivals. The United Arab Emirates flew him in for talks last year, following a meeting the cleric held with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the desert kingdom. Financial aid and deeper ties were discussed, according to Sadr’s website.

Shiite Iraq Cleric Key Player in Sunni Attempts to Curb Iran

Other Kurdish and Sunni-led slates are contesting the election but they are unlikely to emerge in positions of power. About 7,000 candidates are standing for 329 parliament seats.

“We seek better security and services. I have voted for Fateh bloc,” said Jasim Muhsin, a 58-year-old retiree who wore a coat to protect himself against the early morning chill.

Some Iraqi politicians say that Iranian influence over the election has dwindled with its attention focused on the nuclear stand-off with the U.S. and an economic crisis at home. But others see the ballot gaining in significance amid the standoff, with Tehran and Washington even more determined to fashion a government that’s favorable to their interests.

“Immediately after the election we will witness American efforts to back” Abadi’s Nasr group, said Izzat Al-Shabander, a former lawmaker under Maliki and now unaffiliated. “The Iranians will be pushing for his opponents.”

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