BAGHDAD – The surprisingly strong showing of a ticket backed by maverick cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in Iraqi elections over the weekend will force U.S. officials to recalculate how best to pursue American interests in the region.
Sadr is a ferocious critic of American policies in the Middle East, and his unexpected electoral haul immediately calls into question the continuing presence of U.S. troops in Iraq. But his spokesman said Sadr supports honoring commitments between Iraq and the U.S. concerning the training of Iraq's security forces and weapons purchases as long as they serve Iraq's interests and there “is no interference on the sovereignty of Iraq.”
Sadr's ticket won the most seats in Iraq's parliamentary election, according to results from all 18 provinces released Monday, placing him in the best position to select the country's next prime minister and set the course for how the nation emerges from a costly war against the Islamic State.
His ascendancy comes at the expense of incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, the preferred candidate of the United States, who came in third.
The Shiite cleric first gained international notice as a young militia leader who fought U.S. troops after the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Sadr has grown increasingly pragmatic over the years and formed a cross-sectarian electoral alliance emphasizing Iraqi nationalism over loyalty to Iranian clerics and American military and political backing. He has also broken ranks with Iraq's Shiite establishment by denouncing Iran's involvement in Syria's civil war and its bid for expanded influence in Iraq.
“He's the only politician with a clear vision for Iraq,” said a Western diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Iraq first, eradicate corruption and a technocratic government.”
Sadr is distrusted by both the U.S. and Iran for his active opposition to both. He has balked at Iran's efforts to extend its influence through military assistance and political backing of hard-line Shiite politicians. Like the U.S., Iran will have to recalibrate how to advance its interests in Iraq, where Sadr's independence has made him attractive to some of Iran's rivals in the Arab world.