Votes for a Rebel Cleric Prove the Resilience of Iraqi Democracy

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- When it comes to Iraq, the fates have a sense of humor.

The party of the middle-aged cleric who once led an insurrection against U.S. forces won the most seats in last week’s election – an election America's intervention 15 years earlier made possible.

Most Americans remember Moqtada al-Sadr as the first face of Iraq's real resistance. Sure, there were the remnants of Saddam Hussein's loyalists in Iraq and a Jordanian named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who terrorized Iraqis after the fall of Saddam. But it was Sadr's rebellion in Najaf that was the first sign that no matter how much Iraqis hated their dictator, there were millions who also hated the army that toppled him.

That element of Sadr's legacy is summed up by the inclusion of former journalist Muntadhar al-Zaidi in his political list that won the most votes this month in federal elections. In 2008, Zaidi was the journalist who threw a shoe at George W. Bush at a press conference during his last tour of the country.  

This anti-American legacy is only half the story. Sadr remains a nationalist, but his ire today is turned on Iran and the Iraqi politicians who grow rich from Iranian bribes. As Reuters reported last week, when word spread that his list on the ballot had outperformed his rivals, Sadr's supporters in Baghdad erupted in cheers, chanting "Iran out."

It has not always been this way for Sadr, who once earned the nickname "Mullah Atari" for his short attention span and fondness for video games. When David Petraeus took command of coalition forces in Iraq in 2007, Sadr took safe haven in Iran, correctly fearing the new counter-insurgency strategy would target him.

Over time however Sadr came to despise Iran and its influence on his country. Michael Knights, a Gulf security expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told me Sadr demonstrated his independence from Iran during negotiations over a vote of no confidence against Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in 2012. At the time the Iranians pulled out numerous stops to persuade Sadr not to vote with other Iraqi leaders against the prime minister. They had various Shiite clerics lobby him, and their agents placed a bomb in front of his house, Knights said. But Sadr did not relent. "That was the moment he said to the Iranians, 'no more,'" Knights told me. "I am not going to back down even if you kill me."

To be sure, Sadr is by no means an enlightened leader. He remains a fundamentalist, though his party includes many prominent Iraqi communists. Sadr's fatwa in 2003 that allowed looting so long as a portion of the booty was donated to his mosques was a direct encouragement for the kind of vigilantism that has come close to extinguishing Iraqi democracy.

While he turned to violence in 2004 to oppose the interim government that replaced Saddam Hussein, Sadr has participated in subsequent governments in Baghdad and positioned himself as a populist reformer. And while other Shiite and Kurdish leaders grew closer with Iran, Sadr openly visited the Sunni kingdoms of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. In this respect, the fact that Sadr's party won a little more than 16 percent of the vote and an estimated 54 seats in the next parliament is a good sign for Iraqi sovereignty.

Sadr will be an important player in the coming weeks and months, as Iraqi politicians will negotiate the coalition to rule the next government. He has a chance to help shape that government, but it's not a guarantee.  

The man to watch now is Qassem Suleimani, the commander of Iran's Quds Forces and the Middle East's most notorious manipulator. It was Suleimani who split the Kurds this fall following their independence referendum vote on the eve of the Iraqi offensive to wrest control of Kirkuk.

When the Islamic State threatened to tear Iraq apart in 2014, it was Suleimani and Iran that made the first unconditional offer to Baghdad to defend the capital. It was only later, after the U.S. quietly helped push out the prime minister, that America offered more robust air support and special operators to take on the Sunni jihadists who had captured Mosul.

That episode demonstrates that it's possible to counter Iran's influence in Iraq. The Iranians back in the summer of 2014 remained loyal to Maliki. At the same time, Iran's influence in Baghdad has only increased in the last four years, whereas America's has largely waned.

Consider the party that came in second place in the elections. It's headed by one of the militia leaders who enjoys an almost fraternal relationship with Suleimani, Hadi al-Amiri. The lists of Amiri and Maliki together won 72 seats in the election. Both are much closer to Iran than America or its Middle East allies would like. If they form a governing coalition, then Iran could render moot the experiment in Iraqi democracy that began in 2003. Iraqis get to vote, but Iran would call the shots.   

This is the great irony of Sadr's ascendance. For all of his flaws, he is the best chance to thwart Iranian dominance in Iraq. This may seem like a long shot. After all, despite President Donald Trump's rhetoric against Iran, he has been unwilling to send more troops to Syria to stop counter Tehran there. Trump now promises to withdraw troops altogether from Syria. Like Barack Obama before him, he campaigned in part on his opposition to Bush's 2003 war in Iraq.

Say what you will about the war, but the resulting Iraqi elections have proven resilient. Despite two terror-insurgencies, rampant corruption, occupation and chaos, Iraqis voted this month in their fourth straight election. Unlike the faux elections in Egypt or the upcoming vote in Turkey, it was competitive and the outcome was surprising. Unlike in neighboring Iran, Iraq's fourth election will determine a government that wields real power. 

Larry Diamond, a former senior adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority in 2004 in Baghdad, told me last week that the resilience of the Iraqi system surprised him. "Would I have expected that 14 years later after I left Iraq, the civilian constitutional system would still be standing, warts and all, and would have just completed a fourth consecutive election that was competitive and at least a reasonable representation of the popular will?," he asked. "No I would not have expected that."

I suspect a radical cleric named Moqtada al-Sadr is also surprised. A U.S.-led occupation that Sadr once opposed with the bullet has resulted in a country ruled by the ballot.

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