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A Look At The Political Rise Of Iraq's Shiite Militias

May 15, 2018
Originally published on May 16, 2018 11:24 am
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Now we're going to dig in on the surprising twist coming out of Iraq's parliamentary elections, the rise of a man who had led battles against American troops. Votes are still being tallied, but the final count is unlikely to change the bigger picture of the results. NPR's Jane Arraf sent us this report from Baghdad.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Followers of Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have gathered in Baghdad's Tahrir Square to celebrate since election results started coming in. Sadr led militia forces that fought U.S. troops after the invasion of Iraq. He disbanded that militia, and now he's emerged as the big winner in Iraq's first post-ISIS elections. His supporters, like Sami Abdul Kulthum Dohan (ph), have high hopes.

SAMI ABDUL KULTHUM DOHAN: (Through interpreter) This time, there will be change that will be good for everyone.

ARRAF: And by that, he means a government that provides public services and creates jobs, instead of stealing money. That's how a lot of Iraqis think of their politicians. Sadr won't meet with U.S. officials. He opposes interference by both the U.S. and Iran in Iraqi affairs. Although he comes from a revered family of Shia religious scholars, for this election, he put aside religion and created an alliance that includes Sunnis, secularists and communists. The elections, though, are just the start of forming a government.

No group has enough seats to form one on its own, so they need to form alliances for a coalition. It's even more complicated because the second-biggest winner is a group that includes former militia leaders with ties to Iran. They answered a religious call to fight ISIS four years ago, and now they've turned to politics. And then there's Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. He was expected to win but instead he's come in third.

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PRIME MINISTER HAIDER AL-ABADI: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: Abadi was educated in the U.K. He's considered a moderate. He's supported keeping U.S. troops here and reforming the economy. If he cuts the right deals, Abadi could still be prime minister. But Sadr and Iranian-backed militia leaders winning so much support puts Iraq and the U.S. in uncharted territory. Jane Arraf, NPR News, Baghdad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.