May 22, 2018 | Policy Brief

Iranian General Soleimani in Iraq as Post-Election Government Formation Talks Begin

May 22, 2018 | Policy Brief

Iranian General Soleimani in Iraq as Post-Election Government Formation Talks Begin

Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani visited Baghdad last week to begin building a pro-Tehran coalition following the Iraqi elections held on May 12. Soleimani, the leader of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), is in charge of Tehran’s efforts to bring Iraq and other Arab states under Iranian influence. In Baghdad, one key obstacle Soleimani must overcome is the unexpected success at the polls of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Sairoon (Marching Toward Reform) movement, which campaigned against corruption and foreign influence in Iraq.

Soleimani’s likely objective in Baghdad is to help form a governing coalition that excludes Sairoon, which won 54 seats in parliament, the most of any party but less than one-sixth of the 329 in parliament. Sadr is a Shiite cleric who has rebranded himself as a corruption fighter and an Iraqi nationalist in a country torn apart by sectarian tensions and regional politics, despite the years he spent working closely with Iran to wage war against the U.S. after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Iran is said to seek reunification of the two wings of the Dawa Party led by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a close ally to Iran, respectively. Abadi’s al-Nasr (Victory) list won 42 seats, while Maliki’s State of Law won 25.

Iran’s opposition to Sadr during the election was clear. Ali Akbar Velayati, the top foreign policy adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said in February that Tehran would prevent Sadr and his allies from governing. “We will not allow liberals and communists to govern in Iraq,” Velayati said, referring to the secular parties that have made common cause with Sadr as part of Sairoon.

Initially, the head of Sadr’s parliamentary bloc ruled out deals with Tehran’s main allies, former Prime Minister Maliki and Hadi al-Amiri, leader of the pro-Iran al-Fath al-Mubin (Manifest Conquest) bloc that came in second with 47 seats. Sadr himself called for a non-partisan, cross-sectarian technocratic government during a meeting with Shiite cleric Ammar al-Hakim, whose Hikma (Wisdom) Movement finished seventh with 19 seats.

Sadr’s most likely partner would be Abadi, who has the unusual distinction of being minimally tolerable to both Tehran and its adversaries. After the vote, Abadi congratulated Sadr on his success and said he is ready to “work and cooperate in forming the strongest government for Iraq, free of corruption.” Yet with only 96 seats between them, the two would still be almost 70 shy of a majority.

Sadr also met with ambassadors from Iraq’s neighbors, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, Syria, and Turkey. Iran’s ambassador was not invited to the talks, a signal of opposition to any Iranian influence in Iraq.

Sadr did meet with Amiri, however, despite his prior signal of opposition to any deal with al-Fath al-Mubin. According to a statement from Sadr’s office, the cleric said, “The process of government formation must be a national decision and importantly, must include the participation of all the winning blocs.”

While Soleimani worked on Tehran’s behalf, Brett McGurk, the U.S. envoy for the coalition to defeat the Islamic State, met with several Iraqi leaders, including Abadi, Maliki, Hakim, Salim al-Jabouri, the parliament speaker who lost his seat, and Masoud Barzani. Sadr described the U.S. envoy’s “interference” in the Iraqi domestic affairs as “awful.”

Cognizant of Iran’s bid for decisive influence in the post-election period, the United States should encourage all political leaders to move away from sectarianism and build an inclusive government that cannot be controlled by Tehran. To achieve this, Washington can work with Baghdad to fight corruption, reconstruct cities destroyed during battles against the Islamic State, and bring all Iraqi security forces under the exclusive control of its elected leaders.

Romany Shaker is an Arabic-language research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @RomanySh.

Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.