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In Iraq, Trump has a chance to be the tough, clear-eyed leader he claims to be

Cooperating with Muqtada Sadr would be a bitter pill for many Iraq veterans, and a difficult move for the prideful “America First” president. But he could also be an ally of convenience. 

Raghad Hammadi is a member of a group of students campaigning to help rebuild the Central Library of Mosul University.
REUTERS/Khalid Al-Mousily

Is President Trump really worried about Iran, or is his confrontational approach mostly grandstanding,  a matter of burnishing his image while poking a stick in the eye of Barack Obama?

Is he the tough, clear-eyed leader he claims to be? Is he willing to sell an unpopular foreign policy move to voters if he thinks it’s in the best interests of the country?

There are plenty of reasons to doubt. But if the answer to both questions is yes, there may be an opportunity awaiting him in Iraq.

Nothing much seems to go well in Iraq. Even bits of good news come with a helping of bad. Yes, Islamic State fighters were ejected from Mosul, and the power of the militant movement has withered. But Iraq’s second-largest city is a wreck after the occupation and months of fighting. Yes, the country dodged a dangerous split, but that came at the expense of its most pro-Western people, the long-suffering Kurds — who voted for independence last September but saw the movement stall.

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It’s tempting to look the same way at the news of national elections held last month. Yes, they happened without the rampant violence and corruption of the past. But the political movement that took first place is loyal to Muqtada Al Sadr.

If that name seems vaguely familiar, it’s because Sadr was a major figure during the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq. Sadr’s Shiite militia was responsible for sectarian killings, forcibly clearing neighborhoods of Sunnis, kidnappings and extortion. Its roadside bombs and attacks, launched with Iranian weapons, killed many U.S. soldiers.

Sadr claims to have remade himself in recent years. He now portrays himself as a crusader against corruption, and as a nationalist who wants to limit foreign influence in Iraq. That still goes for the United States. But he says it now goes for Iran, too. Sadr’s campaign message was “Iraq first,” and he promised to drain the swamp in Baghdad. Sound familiar?  

His spokesman says the Islamic State’s success in 2014 was a wake-up call. Sadr’s militia took up arms again, this time fighting on the same side as the Americans against the Sunni militants. Sadr says that sectarian-based government has failed miserably, so it’s time to give the technocrats a try. He has made a point of visiting Iran’s archrival, Saudi Arabia. He managed to persuade even some of Iraq’s Communists — no fans of sectarianism — to back him.

Has he really changed? It makes sense to be skeptical. But Michael D. Sullivan, a U.S. Army colonel who served five tours in Iraq, and saw friends die at the hands of Sadr’s militia, thinks he has. Sullivan, now posted at the U.S. Embassy in Iraq, acknowledges the suspicions of his military comrades, but says Sadr is Iraq’s best hope.  

Sadr has been trying to put together a governing coalition, which could prove to be his undoing. Although his Sairoon Alliance for Reform came in first, it won only 54 of the 329 seats in parliament. Fatah, a pro-Iran movement, came in second with 47. According to Iraqi analyst Zaid Al Ali, writing in Al Jazeera, 28 parties will have five or fewer seats in parliament. Ten Sunni parties will together have 39 seats. Iraqi politics is that badly splintered.

Sadr says he doesn’t want the prime minister’s job. Instead, he is working with the current prime minister, Haider Al Abadi, whose party finished third. They agreed Saturday to form an alliance. Abadi might not be the new face Iraqis crave, but still is a vast improvement over his predecessor, Nouri Al Maliki, whose government was not only corrupt and incompetent, but also deeply pro-Shiite — providing an opening for the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State.

A deal Sadr previously struck with Fatah might mean Iraq’s Shiites are closing ranks, cozying up to Iran, and that sectarian politics again will dominate. Or it might be an acknowledgement that — as some analysts had predicted — Sadr needs to include pro-Iranian figures to help build a majority and ensure his powerful neighbor doesn’t get too upset.

If you’re President Trump and you’re concerned about Iran’s influence in the Middle East, there is no time to lose. The Iranians aren’t going anywhere. But limiting their influence in Shiite-majority Iraq would be a big deal, and even bigger if Iraq ever gets past its internal problems to play a larger role in the region.

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Trump needs to work with his friends in Saudi Arabia to determine if the new Sadr is for real, and if so, whether he is interested in cooperation. Does he want continued security assistance? Technical help, markets or financing for Iraq’s oil industry? Trump should be clear that the U.S. wouldn’t expect Sadr to be a vassal (and the president really needs to disavow his threat to seize Iraq’s oil).

You don’t have to be friends, and you don’t have to forget what Sadr did. Cooperating with him would be a bitter pill for many Iraq veterans, and a difficult move for the prideful “American First” president.

With a bigger goal in sight, a pragmatist can get past those obstacles. It happens often enough. The enemy of your enemy doesn’t have to be your friend. An ally of convenience would be good enough.