Iran allies round on surprise Iraq vote winner

by Ali Choukeir
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A road in the Baghdad neighbourhood of Sadr City on May 14, 2018, where three people were killed in an explosion on Tuesday

Iran and its allies were mustering a bid Wednesday to limit the role of fiery Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr in Iraq's next government after his shock election win reshaped the country's political landscape.

The preacher, who was the bete noire of American forces during the US invasion, captured the most seats in parliament after his improbable alliance with Iraq's communists tapped popular anger over corruption and foreign interference.

But analysts said the reality of Iraq's complex political system and the sway still held by neighbouring Iran mean he faces a fight to oversee the running of a country still reeling from a brutal conflict against the Islamic State group.

Fanar Haddad, an Iraq analyst at the University of Singapore, said it was "mathematically, legally and constitutionally" possible for Sadr's rivals to form a coalition government without members of his victorious Marching Towards Reform alliance.

Preliminary tallies from last weekend's vote put the Conquest Alliance of pro-Iranian former paramilitary fighters who helped battle IS in second place, followed by incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's bloc.

Abadi -- a consensus figure favoured by the US -- had been seen as likely frontrunner after declaring victory over the jihadists five months ago.

The vote -- which saw record high abstentions -- was a slap in the face to the widely reviled elite that has dominated Iraq since the 2003 US-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein.

Since Monday, the powerful Iranian general Qassem Soleimani has met with several members of Iraq's old guard including Abadi and his predecessor Nuri al-Maliki, several officials told AFP.

According to the officials, Soleimani ruled out any alliance with Sadr, who surprised many last year by visiting Iran's regional foe Saudi Arabia as Riyadh seeks increased involvement in Iraq.

- Comeback king -

Sadr rose to prominence in the wake of the US invasion, when his militia fought a bloody insurgency against American troops.

After years on the sidelines, he has reinvented himself as a champion of the poor and linked up with secularists to battle corruption.

He is one of the few Iraqi politicians opposed to both the presence of American troops and the heavy influence that neighbouring Iran exercises over Iraq.

Soleimani's shuttle diplomacy is aimed at gathering enough parties opposed to Sadr to deny his alliance a governable majority and a route to the powerful position of prime minister -- though Sadr himself is not in the running for the top job.

As well as Abadi and Maliki, the Iranian general met with the pro-Tehran head of the Conquest Alliance Hadi al-Ameri.

A spokesman for Maliki told AFP that the former premier is looking to form a parliamentary bloc with "several major players, including the Conquest Alliance, Sunni and Shiite parties, and the Kurds."

Sadr has already ruled out governing with either Ameri or Maliki and called instead for a technocratic government that can begin to tackle Iraq's rampant corruption and the mammoth rebuilding task left from the battle against IS.

"Iran wants to exert pressure so that these two forces (Ameri and Maliki) are at the negotiating table," said analyst Haddad.

While speculation swirls, the next concrete step remains completing the vote count and firming up the final make-up of Iraq's new 329-seat parliament. Official election results are expected in the coming days.

The vote -- which saw record high abstentions -- was a slap in the face to the widely reviled elite that has dominated Iraq since the 2003 US-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein

Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr rose to prominence in the wake of the US invasion of Iraq, when his militia fought a bloody insurgency against American troops�