Iraq in limbo after elections
Populist Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr set to be the key powerbroker for a coalition government
16 May, 2018An alliance spearheaded by nationalist cleric Moqtada Sadr claimed victory at Iraq's first nationwide election since the defeat of the Islamic State group. The rival Conquest Alliance of pro-Iranian former fighters appeared to be coming in second, squeezing internationally favoured PM Haider al-Abadi into third. Praised for the victory over the IS, Abadi was punished by the voters for his failure to beat corruption. The parliamentary vote last Saturday saw a record low turnout, as only 44.5% of eligible voters headed to the polls in the lowest participation rate since the 2003 US-led ouster of Saddam Hussein.Provisional results showed that Sadr's Marching Towards Reform alliance, which includes Iraq's communists, was ahead in 16 of 18 regions. Final results have been delayed amid allegations of vote rigging in northern Iraq, with some Kurdish parties demanding a re-run of the weekend's poll. The Conquest Alliance, made up of ex-fighters from mainly Iran-backed paramilitary units that battled IS, led in four provinces and was second in eight others. The head of the list is Hadi al-Ameri, a long-time ally of Tehran, whose forces ended up battling alongside the US to oust the jihadists.Shiite preacher Sadr, who did not stand as a candidate and therefore cannot head the government, appears set to play kingmaker after years on the sidelines. In a tweet, he appeared to point towards a broad technocrat coalition with leading blocs, including Abadi's, but left main challenger the Conquest Alliance off the list. Sadr's movement is seeking allies who agree to its three-plank manifesto: ending the practice of awarding ministries on sectarian quotas, fighting corruption, and allowing independent technocrats to manage key government agencies, his spokesman said after the victory.Sadr has reinvented himself as an anti-graft crusader after rising to prominence as a powerful militia chief whose group waged a bloody insurgency against US forces after the 2003 invasion. While long railing against the US, the populist firebrand has also distanced himself from its key rival Iran, drawing closer to regional Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia.The complex electoral arithmetic of the Iraqi system, however, means that the final makeup of the 329-seat parliament is still far from decided. Whatever the outcome, there looks set to be lengthy horse-trading between the main political forces before any new premier and a coalition government can be installed, observers noted. They also stressed that whoever emerges as premier will face the mammoth task of rebuilding a country left shattered by the battle against IS, with donors already pledging $30bn (€25bn). More than two million people remain internally displaced across the country and IS, while weakened, still has the capability to launch deadly attacks.The electoral surprise comes with tensions surging between the US and Iran after Washington's withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal, sparking fears of a destabilising power struggle over Iraq.