The United States has contacted members of a political bloc in Iraq led by a former foe, the Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, after his election win put him in a strong position to influence the formation of a new government, a top Sadr aide said.
The surprise victory by Sadr's political alliance Sairoon in a parliamentary election last week has put Washington into an awkward position. His Mehdi Army militia fought violent battles against US troops after Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003.
Despite their past enmity, Washington and Sadr, an Iraqi nationalist, agree on their opposition to Iran's deep influence in Iraq, where it arms, trains and funds Shi'ite militias and nurtures close ties with many politicians.
Dhiaa al-Asadi, a top aide to the cleric, said U.S. officials had used intermediaries to initiate contact with members of his Sairoon alliance.
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"They asked what the position of the Sadrist movement will be when they come to power. Are they going to reinvent or invoke the Mahdi Army or reemploy them? Are they going to attack American forces in Iraq," he told Reuters.
But according to Asadi, there was no question of another Mahdi Army, which Sadr said he disbanded in 2008. "There's no return to square one. We are not intending on having any military force other than the official military force, police forces and security forces," Asadi said.
Sadr cannot be prime minister himself since he did not run in the election but has been meeting the leaders of other blocs and setting conditions on his support for candidates for prime minister. He says he wants someone who rejects sectarianism, foreign interference and corruption in Iraq.
Sairoon's success could turn out to be a setback for Tehran and a boon for the United States, which seems happy to forget its past gripes with Sadr.
"We remain open to meet and work with the government that is formed and given that Sairoon won the plurality of seats and they'll certainly make up a part of this government," said a US official, who was speaking on condition of anonymity.
The US is eager and willing to meet with a variety of people who will be involved in the government and Sadr will be a player in that.
The United States is believed to have some 7,000 troops in Iraq now, though the Pentagon has only acknowledged 5,200 troops. They are mostly training and advising Iraqi forces.
Sadr, long seen by Iraqi and US officials as an unpredictable maverick, made his surprise comeback by tapping popular resentment towards Iran and anger the Tehran-backed political elite in Baghdad which some voters say is corrupt.
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"His political views seem to vary, to put it kindly," said another U.S. official involved in the effort to understand what Sadr is doing. "At this point, we don't know what he really wants."
Iran under US pressure
Sadr's re-ascendance in Baghdad will worry Iran especially as it grapples with US President Donald Trump's decision to pull out from Iran's 2015 nuclear agreement with world powers and to reimpose sanctions.
Tehran has skillfully manipulated Iraqi politics in its favour in the past and may try to undermine Sadr' attempts to shape a new government.
Just days after election results were announced, Qassem Soleimani, head of the foreign operations branch of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, arrived in Baghdad to meet politicians.
An Iraqi former senior official said Sadr would try to outfox Iran, but added that he believed Tehran would not tolerate any threats to its allies in Iraq.
"There are limits on how far he can go. In the end, they (the Iranians) can control him. They give him a lot of room to maneuver… but eventually, when he challenges the Shi'ites and their interests, I think they will be very tough. They (the Iranians) have very many tools to undermine him."
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Sairoon has not ruled out forming a coalition with the bloc headed by Iran's strongest ally in Iraq, paramilitary leader Hadi al-Amiri, as long as he abandons what Asadi says are sectarian policies and becomes an Iraqi nationalist.
We did not have an official meeting with them (the Iranians). Sometimes we receive some calls that are related to what's going on. But this cannot be considered a meeting or a discussion over any issue
The election dealt a blow to incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, whose Victory Alliance came in third. But Western diplomats and analysts say Abadi, a British-educated engineer, still has cards to play.
He could emerge as a compromise candidate – palatable to all sides because he managed the competing interests of the United States and Iran – inadvertent allies in the war against Islamic State – during his term in office.
"As of yet, no one has yet emerged as an alternative, not in a serious way," said Ali al-Mawlawi, head of research at Baghdad-based Al-Bayan think-tank.