US prepares to embrace former foe Al Sadr

Washington: Fourteen years after Moqtada Al Sadr’s militias fought American troops, the United States is preparing to work hand in hand with the charismatic Shiite cleric and his movement, hoping to find common cause in curtailing Iran’s influence in the wake of an upset Iraqi election.

Like many Iraqis, Washington was caught off guard by the election, in which a coalition organised by Al Sadr took the largest share of the parliamentary vote. Although Al Sadr, who didn’t run himself, won’t become prime minister, his movement will have an outsize role in building the next government and determining the course of Iraq’s future.

Can the US really set aside the past and embrace a cleric whose Mahdi Army killed US and Iraqi troops and was accused of kidnapping, torture and sectarian killings? The tentative answer is yes.

US officials involved in Iraq policy said President Donald Trump’s administration is cautiously optimistic that Al Sadr, having evolved over the years into a populist, corruption-fighting leader, could herald the formation of a broad-based and inclusive government that tolerates a continuing American presence in the country.

Al Sadr has turned away from his previous alignment with Iran. US officials believe that will make it more difficult for Tehran to install an Iran-friendly government in Baghdad. The officials weren’t authorised to discuss Iraq’s election publicly and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the former US ambassador to Iraq, said recent public messages from Al Sadr bode positively for US interests — such as finishing off Daesh, a common enemy of the US and Al Sadr’s militia.

“If he practises what he says — if a former adversary embraces your objectives — one should respond to that, but be cautious until you see changes on the ground,” Khalilzad said. “If he’s willing to engage, we should be prepared to engage as well.”