US in talks with ex-foe Sadr after shock Iraq election win

US in talks with ex-foe Sadr after shock Iraq election win
Washington has reached out to Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who had previously led uprisings against the 2003 invasion.
3 min read
Cleric Moqtada al-Sadr led uprisings against the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq [Getty]

The US has reached out to members of Moqtada al-Sadr's political bloc after a parliamentary election put the Shia cleric in a strong position to form a new government, a top Iraqi aide said. 

Sadr's win puts Washington in an awkward position. He led violent uprisings against US troops following the 2003 war in Iraq. 

The US may have to work with Sadr if he has a strong influence on choosing Iraq's new prime minister.

Aide Dhiaa al-Asadi said there had been no direct talks between Sadr and the US, but intermediaries have opened up channels with his Sairoon alliance. 

"They asked what the position of the Sadrist movement will be when they come to power. Are they going to reinvent or invoke the Mahdi Army or reemploy them? Are they going to attack American forces in Iraq," he told Reuters.

"There's no return to square one. We are not intending on having any military force other than the official military force, police forces and security forces".

The US has thousands of troops currently based in Iraq, acknowledging 5,200 forces, but experts say the figure is higher. They mostly serve in a training and advisery capacity to Iraq's armed forces. 

Both Washington and Sadr are opposed to Iran's influence in Iraq, where it funds Shia militias and maintains close ties with various politicians.  

Sadr, a Shia Iraqi nationalist, made a strong showing by tapping into resentment toward Iran. 

Sadr has met with leaders of various political blocs and has said he wants a new prime minister who rejects sectarianism and foreign interference in the country. 

Sadr will not become premier as he did not run in the election.

His attempts to shape any future government could be undermined by Iran, which plays an important role in Iraqi politics. An Iraqi former senior official told Reuters that Tehran would not tolerate any threats to Shia allies. 

"There are limits on how far he can go. At the end they (the Iranians) can control him. They give him a lot of room to maneuver... But eventually, when he challenges the Shias and their interests, I think they will be very tough. They (the Iranians) have very many tools to undermine him".

Sadr's bloc has expressed willingness to forming a coalition with Hadi al-Amiri, Iran's top ally. But he has stipulated that Amiri must abandon sectarianism. 

"We did not have an official meeting with them (the Iranians). Sometimes we receive some calls that are related to what's going on. But this cannot be considered a meeting or a discussion over any issue," said Asadi.

The election was a loss for Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, whose Victory Alliance came in third. But most observers say Abadi still can maneuvre.

He appears to be emerging as a compromise candidate for his ability to work will all parties during his term in office. 

"As of yet, no one has yet emerged as an alternative, not in a serious way," said Ali al-Mawlawi, head of research at Baghdad-based Al-Bayan think-tank.

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