By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
Two weeks ago, Iraq held its first national election since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
But while many outside observers – particularly inside the United States – were hoping that that election would open the door to a new era of stability in one of the most volatile nations on Earth, instead it brought to the forefront of power Muqtada al-Sadr, a revolutionary Shiite cleric and militia leader whose soldiers once waged an insurgent war against U.S. troops and who have been repeatedly implemented in vicious death squad atrocities against Iraqi civilians.
Even after U.S. troops officially withdrew from the Middle East nation in 2011, Al-Sadr continued to bash Washington verbally and disparage its role in the ongoing war against the so-called Islamic State.
In the last few years, Al-Sadr has been busy reinventing himself — at least in the eyes of the Iraqi people — donning the cloak of a populist, anti-corruption technocrat with a strong nationalist tilt, even standing up to Shiite Iran, which played a significant role in helping him gain a political footing in the first place.
Leading up to Iraq’s May 12 elections, Al-Sadr formed a fragile alliance with several nonsectarian organizations, including the Iraqi Communist Party, a coalition of business leaders and a group of community activists.
He campaigned on a vague, secular, graft-fighting agenda, a platform that appealed strongly to a people whose nation has been listed as the eighth-most-corrupt on Earth by the global think tank Transparency International.
But under the Iraqi political scheme, victory at the polls does not assure Al- Sadr the power seat at the head of a new government.
The Shiite cleric is going to have to do some serious wheeling and dealing with Iraq’s very splintered congress in the weeks ahead, and there are no guarantees that the alliances he forged prior to the election will hold up during the political negotiations that will take place to see who will actually lead the country.
Officially, Al-Sadr has expressed his preference for a secular government of technocrats, but now he must contend with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi (who seems to be on the same page as to the kind of government Al-Sadr wants, but who does not get along with the cleric on a personal level) and the numerous other parties and lobbies that make up the Iraqi rutted political landscape.
In the end, there are no guarantees that Al-Sadr will get his druthers in deciding who will ultimately rule Iraq. (He, himself, is not eligible to be prime minister.)
Now that he has shown himself to be shrewd politician in terms of winning an election, Al-Sadr has to prove that he is also a tactful negotiator with a slew of competing parties representing constricted religious and political beliefs.
The Sunnis, who for decades ran the country and who still control much of Iraq’s political infrastructure, make up about 35 percent of the country’s population and have already expressed their leeriness about having what they still see as an extremist Shiite at the nation’s helm.
And, of course, there is the issue of the Kurds, who have never accepted Baghdad as their capital and have, for all intents and purposes, already proclaimed their political sovereignty.
Trying to create an inclusive government that will reflect and accommodate all Iraqis’ diverse political and religious sentiments will be no easy task.
Whatever happens in Iraq will have strong consequences for all of the Middle East, particularly Iran, Saudi Arabia and Syria.
In the meantime, Iraq’s future hangs in the balance, and so does that of the entire region.
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org