Iraq could get a government excluded by Iran-backed groups

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Iraq could get a government excluded by Iran-backed groups

Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr speaks after preliminary results of Iraq's parliamentary election were announced on October 11, 2021 in Najaf, Iraq. REUTERS Alaa Al-Marjani File Photo

BAGHDAD, Jan 14 Reuters -- Iraq might get a government that excludes Iran-backed parties for the first time in years if a powerful populist cleric keeps his word, Iraqi politicians, government officials and independent analysts say.

But moves by Shi'ite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to sideline rivals long backed by Tehran risks the ire of their heavily armed militia that make up some of the most powerful and most anti-American military forces in Iraq, they say.

The surest sign of Sadr's new parliamentary power and willingness to ignore groups loyal to Iran came on Sunday when his Sadrist movement, along with a Sunni parliament alliance and Western-leaning Kurds, re-elected a parliamentary speaker who was opposed by the Iran-aligned camp with a solid majority.

In the coming weeks, Parliament must choose the country's president, who will call on the largest parliamentary alliance to form a government, a process that will be dominated by the Sadrist Movement whoever it chooses to work with.

Sadrists, Sunnis and Kurds are on track to form a national majority government, but there is no Iran-backed party, a term that officials say is a suphemism for a government made up of Sadrists, Sunnis and Kurds.

Sadr's politicians, buoyed by their easy victory in parliament last week, echoed their leader's confidence.

Riyadh al-Masoudi, a senior member of the Sadrist Movement, said that the Iran camp should face reality: election losers can't make the government.

We have a real majority, a strong front that includes us, the Sunnis, most Kurds and many independents, and can form a government very soon. Iraqi politicians and analysts say that the rise of Sadr and political decline of the Iranian camp, long hostile to the United States, suits Washington and its allies in the region despite Sadr's unpredictability.

There is a violent backlash if you exclude the Iran camp from the government.

If the Sadrists get their national majority government, those who oppose them will view this as threatening their power and splitting the Shi'ites, said Ahmed Younis, an Iraqi political and legal analyst.

They will do everything possible to keep their grip on the grip. Shi'ite groups have dominated Iraqi politics since the U.S. overthrow of Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003. They include a wide variety of parties, most of which have armed wings, but fall broadly into two camps: those that are pro-Iran and those that oppose Tehran's influence in Iraq.

The Shi'ite elite has shared control over many ministries, with Iran-aligned groups holding the upper hand until the recent rise of Sadr, the biggest winner in the Oct. 10 election, which dealt a crushing blow to the Iran camp.

For the first time since the beginning of the year post-Saddam, the Iran-aligned groups could see themselves in opposition in parliament.

The events since the election have shown how dangerous the divide between Sadr and his Iran-backed opponents has become.

In November, protests against the election resulted in violent and armed drone attacks blamed on Iran-linked factions struck the residence of outgoing Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, widely viewed as a close Sadr ally.

On Friday, an explosion hit the Baghdad party headquarters of newly re-elected parliament speaker Mohammed Halbousi.

It was not immediately clear if this was linked to the election of Halbousi by the Parliament on Sunday or who was responsible. There was no claim of responsibility. One Iran-aligned group issued a warning this week after the parliament decided that Iraq could see a spiral of violence.

An Iraqi government official, who declined to be named, said he expected those in the Iran camp to use violence to get a place in government, but not escalate into a full-scale conflict with Sadr.

Other observers say that Sadr's insistence on sidelining Iran-aligned parties and militias could be a dangerous gamble.

Does he Sadr realise how potentially destabilising this is and is he ready for the violent push back? Professor Toby Dodge, a professor at the London School of Economics, said.

Sadr is saying that they can't do this because Iran-backed militias are increasingly threatening violence. The stakes in choosing a president and a prime minister will be higher.

There is little sign that politicians on both sides of the Shi'ite divide might soften their positions.

The Sadrists marginalizing parts of the Shi'ite political class could lead to boycotts of the government, protests in the street and armed violence, said Ibrahim Mohammed, a senior member of the Iran-aligned Fatah political alliance.

A second Sadrist politician who refused to be named said: We're powerful, we have a strong leader and millions of followers who are ready to take to the streets and sacrifice themselves.