What the Iraqi elections mean for U.S. foreign policy

The leader of the winning party, Muqtada al-Sadr, is a nationalist Shia cleric who dislikes both the U.S. and Iran.

A picture taken on May 17, 2018 shows the face of Iraqi Shiite cleric and leader Muqtada al-Sadr adorning the plastic covers of cell phones, on display at a peddlar's stall in a market street in the capital Baghdad. (CREDIT: Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture taken on May 17, 2018 shows the face of Iraqi Shiite cleric and leader Muqtada al-Sadr adorning the plastic covers of cell phones, on display at a peddlar's stall in a market street in the capital Baghdad. (CREDIT: Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images)

As the results of last Saturday’s parliamentary elections in Iraq slowly unfurl, two major players in the country — Iran and the United States — face an uncertain future.

Although 100 percent of the results are not in just yet, and there have been some reports of voter irregularities, the Sairoon party is in the lead with 1.3 million votes. Sairoon is a national coalition of those loyal to Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and the communist party.

Al-Sadr is known for begin against foreign influence, disliking both the United States and Iran. And he now seems to be in the catbird seat. Although he didn’t run for office himself and therefore can’t be prime minister, he suddenly has a lot of sway over who might be by virtue of the coalition he forms.

Current Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi will serve until some kind of coalition government is formed, and it could take many months for that to happen. There is also precedent in Iraq for the winning party to not be able to form a coalition. In 2010, for example, Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiya block won the most seats, but was undercut by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who had taken office in 2006 and was not about to step down.

Despite the narrative the State Department and media pundits try to push, things aren’t divided along sectarian lines — the coalitions are essentially mixed, and relationships are, well, complicated.


“Figuring out votes by ethnicity or sect isn’t going to say very much,” said Anthony Cordesman, the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at Center for Strategic and International Studies, “particularly since there are very serious divisions within the Kurds, and serious division within the Shiites, so we’re not talking about a pattern of unity.”

Problems on top of problems

Over half of eligible Iraqi voters sat this election out — some because they couldn’t make it back to their hometowns to vote for security reasons, others owing to frustration with the lack of tangible improvement in their lives.

“The vote denotes that people were fed up with the old politicians,” said Marina Ottaway, Middle East Fellow at The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, pointing to the familiar faces running for office, yet again, in Iraq. “One thing that struck me, as I was looking at who was running, is that there was absolutely no change, that the line up of the political parties and the politicians…so I expected a vote towards new organizations, although I thought that the winners would be the Fateh Alliance, that is, the [Shia] militias,” she added.

The less-than-iron-clad election results also serve to pile uncertainty on top of major economic problems — far beyond reconstruction — with virtually no period of stable economic development since Iraq invaded Iran in 1980.


Iraq is one of the most inefficient, poorly managed economies in the Middle East, struggling with even its own bounty. For instance, Iraq vents (or “flares”) the natural gas released as result of oil production, only to then import gas from Iran.

Plus, all of this is happening at an especially fragile time in the country, when Iraq is just emerging from the ashes of a horrible, three-year long battle against the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS).

Putting rookies in charge of these problems does not bode well.

“You’ve got new political factions which have never been before had to really take a serious role in politics,” said Cordesman, who previously served as national security assistant to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz) and as director of intelligence assessment in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

“And what they all face are serious problems in creating an effective Iraqi security force, which still would require several years of U.S. support.,” he added.


Although al-Abadi has (unsurprisingly) already signaled his willingness to work with al-Sadr in order to stay in office, Ottaway said that jumping into bed with the Sadrists is fraught for the prime minister too.

“It might give him a little more independence from the Iranians, but at the same time, would worsen his relationship with the United States…and if he is willing to negotiate a deal with Sadr, then probably we would have an alliance between Maliki and the Hashd [al Shaabi],” she said, referring to the powerful, largely Shia militia that is part of the Fateh Alliance.

On the other hand, if al-Abadi tries to form an alliance with Fateh, currently the runner-up in the elections, he will be under Iran’s thumb, meaning, “he’s finished, essentially — his influence will be reduced to nothing,” said Ottaway.

It’s also unclear whether the Kurds will assume their role as kingmakers, or if they are too fragmented at this time. Or whether al-Sadr will demand that al-Abadi, who threw the Kurds under the bus by refusing to recognize the legitimacy of their independence vote in the fall, start to make some concessions for the Kurdistan Regional Government.

But because no one has an overwhelming majority of votes, and because voter turnout was low, some kind of alliance will have to be formed.

“They’re going to have create some kind of coalition structure, they may choose to work with Abadi, they may not. They may divide or they may unify. They may cut deals with given parts of the Kurds or all of them,” said Cordesman, “You can see a serious set of questions about almost every aspect of this.”

U.S. and Iranian response: Awkward

Iran isn’t fond of communists and issued a statement earlier this week saying that the communists can’t run Iraq — but Ottaway laughed at this, saying that by itself, Iraq’s Communist Party “has about three members.”

Still, while Iran has tremendous influence in Iraq, it’s premature to say that Iran has “won” or that it “lost” the elections there, as others in the media have been quick to claim. There’s a lot to be done before the dust settles.

Meanwhile, al-Sadr hasn’t been even remotely vague about how he feels about the United States: He’s ordered his followers to attack U.S. troops, specifying that their weapons “should be pointed exclusively at the occupier.”

While al-Sadr has modified his language to say that the U.S. troops could stay in Iraq as long as it’s in the best interest of the country, how the United States will re-calibrate its approach in Iraq to work with the Sadrists remains to be seen.

Ottaway said that if President Donald Trump tried to oblige and pull U.S. troops out of Iraq, “He would have a huge pushback by the military.”

When asked about al-Sadr’s new position on Tuesday, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert was quick to remind reporters that al-Sadr “wasn’t an actual candidate on any of the ballots, but yet his slate of people were candidates.”

“Iraq is still finalizing its election results right now,” she continued. “They’re likely to have to form some sort of coalition government, so I don’t want to get ahead of the process and presume how things are going to look in the end. But I think the overarching theme right now is congratulations to Iraq for holding democratic and free elections.”

So, what does that mean?

“It took us months, even with a somewhat more cohesive set of choices, to get any idea of what was going to come out of the last election in 2010…and I think you have to remember that, because to some extent, these were known quantities. Now you have figures which are not known quantities, they’ve never governed anything,” said Cordesman.

“I think that this administration is going to find it very difficult to get actively involved in even planning and support activities for the economic side and nation-building. It is probably going to see the security dimension almost exclusively in terms of ISIS, at least initially…and then there will be the question of Iran,” said Coredesman.

He added that the Trump administration is “simply not predictable in either the security nor the nation-building dimensions…You can’t have a contingency plan because all of this is almost at random.”

Still, al-Sadr’s two most likely options for a coalition would be either with al-Amiri’s Iran-backed Fateh party, or al-Abadi’s U.S.-backed Nasr al-Iraq party — neither being ideal by virtue of the cleric’s staunch nationalist stance.

But, Cordesman said al-Sadr will find a way to wheel and deal.

“Playing enemies off each other is a sport that people are pretty good at in Iraq,” he said, chuckling.