Iraq is now wrapping up its milestone elections, the first national vote to take place since the Islamic State was dislodged from its stronghold in the country.
In an unexpected turn of events, the political alliance of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has emerged as the biggest winner so far in the parliamentary elections. Coming from a prestigious line of Muslim scholars, Sadr doesn’t occupy a position on the ballot himself, but is rather the religious/ideological figure at the top of a political movement that commands millions of followers throughout Iraq.
Sadr’s success is a bit disconcerting for U.S. leaders. The cleric’s history is one of violent opposition to the American presence in Iraq. Fifteen years ago, Sadr, who was already a prominent public figure, famously told the interviewer in his first Western television appearance: "Saddam was the little serpent, but America is the big serpent."
Sadr headed a militia of Shiite fighters, the Mahdi Army, that repeatedly clashed with American and other Western forces. The attacks executed by his troops were planned with high levels of sophistication and exacted a high toll from the coalition. The Mahdi hit supply convoys, destroyed roads and bridges, and launched assaults against high-value installations. Eventually, the Mahdi Army was effectively eliminated by American forces. But Sadr had established himself as a force to be reckoned with.
Over the past ten years, in a shift from his militant past, Sadr rebranded himself as a secular nationalist. His political message became one of anti-corruption and reform, a message which seemed to resonate with Iraqis tired of a political landscape entrenched in sectarianism.
Commenting on the results, Rend al-Rahim, a former Iraqi ambassador to the United States told Al Jazeera: "The ascendancy of the list sponsored by al-Sadr shows that anti-establishment sentiment and anti-corruption have driven the choice of most voters." Rahim added that Sadr may in fact be carrying the most coherent policy plans, and is seen by many voters as being the most pragmatic choice. "None of the lists had an electoral program that outlined priorities and a plan of action. All used vague terms to lure voters. Many of the lists also used populist and demagogic tactics that played on the emotions of voters.”
While Sadr shuns foreign involvement in Iraq, he may be the best option for the country in the long term, even from the perspective of Western leaders. Despite his Shiite identity, Sadr has strongly opposed the Iranian influence in the country, a phenomenon that has deeply troubled the United States and other regional countries for quite a while. Sadr has also persistently made moves to foster unity with neighboring countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Lastly, and this may be the most important point, Sadr seems genuine in his detest of corruption and political power mongering, both of which have been prominent features of Iraq throughout the post-Saddam era. For Iraq to have any hope of achieving long-term stability, it needs a culture of leadership that has the interests of its citizens at heart, rejects corruption, and seeks genuine structural reform.
America and other Western nations with interest in Iraq may prefer an Iraqi leadership with positive sentiments toward them. But infinitely more important is leadership that can effectively lead and brings Iraq towards independence and self-sufficiency.