Iraq’s new kingmaker has transformed himself into an anti-corruption, anti-Iranian nationalist

The emergence of Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s group as the largest party in Iraq’s election means he holds the power in Baghdad and represents a new direction for a country beset by challenges but hungry for change

The seismic change in last week’s election reflects deep structural shifts in Iraqi society. Muqtada al-Sadr’s party won the most MPs, although not a majority and he himself did not stand. But his apparent transformation from a sectarian anti-Western, pro-Iranian cleric to an anti-Iranian, anti-corruption nationalist, is part of a wider picture of change in the country and across the whole region.

As Iraq recovers from a crippling conflict with jihadi insurgency, and gives fresh thought to its place in the region including re-evaluating its relationship with an increasingly ostracised Iran, the likely formation of a coalition between al-Sadr, the nationalist cleric, and Haider al-Abadi, the incumbent prime minister, might seem incongruous.

But there is considerable alignment in Abadi and Sadr’s priorities. Their alliance will be a critical moment for Iraq, the Middle East and Western policy-making in the region, as the faultline in regional politics shifts away from zero-sum sectarianism and towards a choice between modernisation and extremism.

Sadr’s volte-face

Sadr’s ascension from a wildcard rebel to a champion of the people has been the main story of these elections. Hailing from a revered clerical family, and an Islamist ideologue of the same persuasion as Iran’s Shia revolutionaries, Sadr garnered international infamy for his command of the sectarian Mahdi Army militia. But, accompanying the reboot of his private army as the anti-Isis “peace companies”, Sadr has undergone a political transformation – especially in his thinking about Iraq’s alliances, culminating in high-profile meetings with the Saudi leadership.

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