Iraq’s Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr has announced a surprise alliance with pro-Iranian political bloc led by Hadi al-Amiri in a bid to form government after last month’s elections resulted in a hung parliament.
At a joint press conference with Amiri in the Shia holy city of Najaf on Tuesday, Sadr hailed the formation of “a true alliance to accelerate the formation of a national government away from any dogmatism”.
The move by Sadr, who is opposed to Iranian involvement in the country, is the first serious step towards forming a new government after weeks of negotiations between parties.
Our meeting was a very positive one, we met to end the suffering of this nation and of the people. Our new alliance is a nationalist one.
Sadr’s Sairoon Alliance won the parliamentary elections with 54 seats but fell short of a majority in the 329-seat parliament.
Amiri’s Fatah (Conquest) Coalition came second with 47 seats, while Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s Nasr (Victory) Coalition once seen as the frontrunner, came in third.
The announcement comes exactly one month after an election marred by historically low turnout and fraud allegations.
The two Shia figures said they would keep the door open for other winning blocs to join them in forming a new government.
Sadr and Amiri are strange bedfellows.
Sadr, who once led violent campaigns against the US occupation that ended in 2011, has emerged as a nationalist opponent of powerful Shia parties allied with neighbouring Iran and as a champion of the poor.
“Our meeting was a very positive one, we met to end the suffering of this nation and of the people. Our new alliance is a nationalist one,” Sadr said.
Al-Sadr’s alliance comprising of communists and secular Iraqis has announced it is fiercely opposed to any foreign interference in Iraq – whether Tehran’s or Washington’s.
Amiri, a fluent Persian speaker, is Iran’s closest ally in Iraq, having spent two years in exile there during the era of former President Saddam Hussein.
The Fatah alliance he led in the election was composed of political groups tied to Iran-backed Shia armed groups who helped government forces defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) fighters.
“Fatah and Sairoon announce forming the nucleus of the largest bloc and call on all winning blocs to participate in this alliance under a government programme agreed upon by all that is suitable to face the challenges, crises, and problems facing Iraq,” a Fatah spokesman said in a statement.
The alliance, which together has 101 seats, 64 short of the majority needed to form a government, came hours after Prime Minister Abadi urged politicians to keep negotiating over government formation despite an impending nationwide manual recount of votes.
Parliament mandated the recount after Abadi said a government report showed there were serious violations.
A few days later a storage site housing half of Baghdad’s ballot boxes caught fire, raising tensions and prompting some to call for the election to be repeated.
Abadi called the fire a deliberate act and said the attorney general would bring charges against those who are trying to undermine the political process.
An Iraqi court ordered the arrest of four people accused of setting fire to the storage site.
“The matter is exclusively in the hands of the judiciary, not politicians. The government and parliament don’t have the power to cancel the election,” Abadi said on the calls for re-election.
The government recommended in a report a recount of five percent of votes but the outgoing parliament, in which over half of lawmakers including the speaker lost their seats, instead voted for a nationwide one.