When Iraqis went to the polls on May 12, the country’s foreign policy was the last thing on their minds. For the vast majority, the central question about the next government was expressly local: Will it be able to deliver services, get the economy moving and, perhaps most important, curb corruption? Three Iraq experts, speaking at the U.S. Institute of Peace this week, said Iraqis of every sect, ethnicity and party across the country raised those central themes. A key problem, they said, is an expectations gap between what voters want and the capacity of any new government to deliver.

Two people take a selfie in front of a destroyed mosque. (Ivor Prickett/The New York Times)

An Unsettled Post-Election Environment

Press coverage of the election has left many Americans with the impression that the Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr emerged as the “winner” in the parliamentary voting, the panelists said. In fact, al-Sadr, who did not run himself, commands a bloc that holds just a few more seats than its closest rivals. He may well be unable to put together a government or even play the role of kingmaker. It’s unlikely that the next government will have the strength to fully satisfy the growing demands of Iraq’s people for a government that works cleanly and efficiently, they said.

“If they don’t get the answer, where do they go next,” asked Kenneth Pollack a scholar of U.S.-Middle East security and foreign policy at the American Enterprise Institute? “We have consistently exaggerated the threat of ISIS and consistently downplayed the circumstances that gave rise to ISIS.”

Denise Natali, the director of the Center for Strategic Research at the National Defense University, said she was troubled that so many Iraqis fail to square their desire for democracy with a professed hope for a strong leader who will tackle corruption. “Not one like Saddam,” she said, “but still a strongman.”

There are two sources to look to in the fight against corruption, said Sarhang Hamasaeed, the director of Middle East Programs at USIP. The first are those who didn’t vote, “the frustrated public that could come out and pose a danger to stability or be a source of pressure for change.” The second are al-Sadr voters—people who generally wanted “better government and better jobs” and whom al-Sadr can mobilize faster and more effectively than other parties’ leaders. If the new government ignores those two groups, “it will be in trouble,” he said.

The event was part of a series of town halls on global issues produced by USIP and the public radio program America Abroad. Moderated by Joshua Johnson, the host of the nationally broadcast public affairs program 1A on Washington, D.C. public radio station WAMU, the panel addressed Iraq’s post-election politics from Iranian influence to the significance of the turnout. Below are edited responses to some of the questions Johnson and the audience posed to the panel.

Iraq’s Next Government Faces an Uphill Climb

Hamasaeed on surprises that emerged in Iraq’s election: You see the same divisions—or diversity; whichever you prefer—in Iraq’s politics. Al-Sadr represents the poor Shia and his coalition made an interesting alliance with secular and Communist groups who have called for reform in Iraq. You also see a group led by the Fatih coalition, which is favored by Iran. You see group of the Kurds, which, if they joined together, could represent 40 to 50 seats. That all remains the same. What’s surprising is that someone like Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi did not do better despite notching wins that include defeating the Islamic State, re-engaging with the Middle East, suppressing the Kurdish independence vote and re-establishing federal authority in disputed territories. I think the feeling was that with corruption and services, he didn’t get it done. Al-Sadr held onto his vote and came out relatively better because the others lost ground in a turnout lower than the last election—which fits the pattern of steady decline in turnout since the first post-invasion elections.

Pollack on the prospects for an effective prime minister emerging: Iraq’s fragmented system is unlikely to produce a strong prime minister. Actually, the next prime minister is structurally set up for failure unless he gets he gets a tremendous amount of external assistance. That can only come from the U.S. and its coalition partners. I don’t see the Trump administration showing any interest in doing that.

Natali on measuring Sadr’s success in the election: Let’s not overestimate al-Sadr. He won seats, but still in a very concentrated area. He didn’t win in disputed territories or outside of his Shia base, whereas the Fatih bloc, the alliance of Popular Mobilization Forces under Hadi al-Amiri, had success in non-Shia areas such as Anbar and Kirkuk. But in addition, there’s the socio-economic component. Sadr represents the impoverished street in Baghdad. From the outside, we see an articulate, decent person in Abadi—which he is—but from an inside view, this is about who can deliver services and fight corruption. Since 2003, al-Sadr is the first person not from the diaspora to win this many votes. This reflects a nationalist Iraqi movement from within that wants to fix the Iraqi state.

Hamasaeed on the next stage in Iraq’s political development: We’re at the point in Iraq where you can see a shift toward non-violence. Al-Sadr has gone from leading a militia fighting the United States and others to leading sit-in protests about governance. Tribal leaders are trying to come together and heal after the Islamic State, and there’s growing sense of community and volunteerism to rebuild with limited resources and not just wait for the state. That said, the situation is more dangerous today than four years ago. There’s militarization in communities and many armed groups. The Islamic State’s tactics of division sowed long-lasting hostilities. It is crucial that the next government be inclusive enough to mitigate these tensions and not go back to politics as usual.

The Iran Factor

Natali on dangers posed by the Fatih alliance: There are indications that al-Sadr, who is an Iraqi nationalist to his core, knows he needs to work with the United States and let some U.S. forces remain despite his feelings and history regarding this country. The Fatih alliance, which includes some Iranian-backed militias, is more disconcerting. What role is Fatih going to play? What ministries will they control? How will they be influencing the provinces? This is not just about seats in the parliament.

Pollack on the impact of new U.S.-Iran tensions on government formation: I wouldn’t exaggerate the likely impact. Iraq has been a very important country for Iran and now it’s somewhat more so with renewed American sanctions and the possibility of Europeans being forced to join. Iranians make money off smuggling through Iraq and they want to make sure Iraq isn’t going to be strong, unified and in the U.S. camp. So, Iran may have more urgency in its approach to the government formation, but it had big interests to begin with, making sure the ruling coalition allows militias to do their thing, allows smuggling and allows Iran to manipulate the currency as it likes. Given Iran’s influence and the likely weakness of the government that emerges, I’m not sure what’s just happened between the U.S. and Iran makes that much difference.

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