On Sunday, Iraq held its first round of parliamentary elections since the defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS). In a surprising result, the main victor was the influential Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose Sairoon Alliance, a coalition between Sadr’s own party and the Iraqi Communist Party, defeated coalitions led by the incumbent prime minister and U.S. favorite, Haider al-Abadi (who finished third), and the Iranian-backed Hadi al-Ameri (who finished second).
Sadr’s victory comes as a relief to neither Iran nor the United States, both of which Sadr targeted in his populist electoral campaign, which promised, like that of every other party, to rid the country of corruption and foreign influence. Iran’s ally, Ameri, came in second, but his party is short on allies with which to form a government. And Abadi’s unexpectedly poor third-place finish was a disappointment to Washington, although there is still a chance that he will join with Sadr in the government formation process and even stay on as prime minister.
For the United States, there is reason for cautious optimism in these results. The new prime minister, whoever that turns out to be, is unlikely to be an Iranian puppet, even if he looks to Iran as an ally. The election, moreover, was fought not along sectarian lines—Sadr’s coalition included some Sunnis as well as his own Shiite base—but on issues such as corruption, and it came at a time when the Iraqi state (or at least parts of it, such as the army) is enjoying broad legitimacy for the first time in years.
Yet there are also grounds for pessimism. Sectarianism as a driver of politics was subdued, but by vote rigging and profit seeking on a vast scale—a sour turn reflected in the low turnout. Furthermore, Iraq’s progress in recent years was a product not merely of internal developments but of a favorable geopolitical situation—namely, the thaw in relations between Washington and Tehran since
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