The recent Iraqi elections are likely to bring anti-American cleric with the blood of U.S. troops on his hands to power, and U.S. and Iraqi officials are trying as hard as they can not to say anything about it.
Muqtada al-Sadr led an bloody uprising against U.S. forces in 2004, and fighters with Sadr’s Jaysh al-Mahdi militia also used Explosively Formed Penetrators to maim and kill U.S. troops in Iraq. Now, Sadr’s political bloc has won the most political votes in Iraq’s parliamentary elections.
Complicating matters further, the coalition that came in second is led by Hadi al-Amiri, head of an Iranian-backed parliamentary group called “The Badr Organization.”
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While facing the very real prospect that Sadr could pick the new Iraqi government, folks at the Pentagon are portraying the elections as the flowering of Iraqi democracy.
“The Iraqi people had an election,” Defense Secretary James Mattis told reporters on May 15. “It’s a democratic process at a time when people – many people – doubted that Iraq could take charge of themselves. So we will wait and see the results – the final results of the election. And we stand with the Iraqi people’s decisions.”
It’s a mantra that is being repeated over and over again by other U.S. and Iraqi officials. Chief Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said that Iraqi democracy is “thriving, and that's a good thing,” when briefing reporters two days later.
Right now, the United States is waiting for Iraqi politicians to form the coalition that will lead Iraq’s next government, White said. “We look forward to standing with our Iraqi partners as their democracy grows,” she said.
Iraq’s ambassador to the United States called his country’s democratic elections “one of Iraq’s proudest achievements.”
“Iraq successfully managed to have the elections within the constitutional timeframe and a peaceful transition of power for the last 12 years, and this year’s elections is the safest process we’ve had in Iraq,” Fareed Yasseen told Task & Purpose.
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So far, the U.S. military’s relationship with Iraq’s armed forces has not been affected by the parliamentary elections, said Army Gen. Joseph Votel, who heads U.S. Central Command.
“The most important thing here is this is the Iraqi people speaking about their future,” Votel told reporters on Friday. “My responsibility as the military commander is that we continue to support the Iraqi security forces as they continue to provide the necessary security as the parliament and these various parties go through the formation of the next government.”
Votel said he is optimistic there will continue to be opportunities for the U.S. and Iraqi militaries to work together. He declined to say how the United States could continue to have a partnership with Iraq if it is led by Sadr’s political bloc, saying questions about policy are outside of his lane. Sadr is know to have ties to Iran and Saudi Arabia.
“My focus is making sure that we stay linked to the Iraqi security forces and that’s what we’re trying to do at this particular point,” Votel said. “I think we have to give the Iraqi political elements the ability to work this out. It usually takes some time to form the government here so I’m not going to try to box anything in by making any predictions or ruling things in or out. That’s not my job.”
Democratic elections do not always bring democratic leaders to power, especially in times of national crisis. The Muslim Brotherhood won in Egypt’s 2012 elections. Hamas was victorious in the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections. Adolf Hitler became Germany’s chancellor as part of a coalition government in 1933.