Iraqis go to polls in low numbers; outcome could impact Iran’s influence

Voter turnout was down and security tight, but the overall scene was one of relative peace Sunday as Iraq held its fifth parliamentary election since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein and created an opening for democracy in the Middle East nation.

While turnout was reported at just over 30% — suggesting apathy among the Iraqi public — the wider region is watching closely for signs of Baghdad’s future political direction at a moment when neighboring Iran is seen to be vying increasingly for influence in the oil-rich country.

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi, generally regarded as a neutral political force, will have his own future decided by the outcome, which will likely become clear over the coming days and is expected to favor the country’s Iran-aligned Shi’ite Islamist parties.

Some of those parties have ties to Iran-backed militias in Iraq — a reality Tehran sharply denies. At the same time, groups drawn from Iraq’s Shiite factions dominate the electoral landscape, as has been the case since after Saddam was toppled, when the country’s power base shifted from minority Sunnis to majority Shiites.

The Shiite groups are divided, particularly over the question of influence from Iran, the region’s Shi’ite Muslim powerhouse and main rival to predominantly Sunni Saudi Arabia, which also neighbors Iraq.

Reuters reported Sunday that the Iraqi Shi’ite movement behind populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who opposes all foreign interference in the country and whose main rivals are Iran-allied Shi’ite groups, is predicted to emerge as Iraqi parliament’s biggest faction.

It’s a complex political landscape that’s likely to impact the future of roughly 2,500 U.S. troops, whom the Pentagon says are currently in Iraq to help the Iraqi military’s counterterrorism preparedness against the threat of a resurgent Islamic State — the Sunni Muslim extremist group that all but brought the country to its knees between 2014 and 2017.

Before polls closed on Sunday night, Agence France-Presse cited Iraqi electoral commission chief Jalil Adnan as saying turnout was estimated at just over 30 percent. The news agency reported that many of Iraq’s 25 million eligible voters had been expected to boycott the polls amid deep distrust in a political class widely blamed for graft, unemployment and crumbling public services.

“This is an opportunity for change,” AFP cited Mr. Kadhemi as saying, as he cast his own ballot in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone. “Get out there and vote, change your reality, for Iraq and for your future.”

Reuters also cited electoral commission officials as predicting low voter turnout, reporting that turnout appeared to be the lowest in any election since 2003.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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