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Iraq Works To Form New Government


Iraqis are still waiting for a new government. This is almost two weeks after they went to the polls in parliamentary elections. Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who once fought U.S. forces, actually won the biggest number of seats in this vote, but not enough to rule alone. So he and rival political leaders have been holding talks to try to form a government. NPR's Jane Arraf joins us now from Baghdad. Hey, Jane.


MARTIN: So talks are ongoing, but have we gotten any hints as to how this government might be shaping up?

ARRAF: Well, we've gotten a few hints, but until parliament meets and the coalition raises its hand and says, hey, we have the biggest number of seats here, we won't actually know what this government is. But here's what we do know, that Muqtada Sadr, the Shia cleric who fought against U.S. forces, will have a big role in choosing the prime minister. Now, he's likely to team up with the current Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who the U.S. thought would actually win this. His party came in third. And then there's the Iranian-backed militias. They have the second-highest number of seats. And then there are a lot of other parties. So there are a lot of political meetings going on. The Kurds have come to Baghdad. There's former Prime Minister Maliki waiting in the wings. A lot of bargaining going on.

MARTIN: So we know Sadr because he led the Mahdi Army that fought U.S. soldiers in the streets of Baghdad. The battle of Sadr City was one of the bloodiest battles of the Iraq War. So if he's going to play this big role in the new Iraqi government, what happens to the U.S. presence in Iraq?

ARRAF: That's what we've all been wondering. So I sat down with his spokesman, Sheikh Salah al-Obeidi, and he points out that Sadr actually backed Abadi's government, the last government, that included agreements on U.S. troops. So let's listen to a bit of that.

SALAH AL-OBEIDI: If the Americans here in order to train the Iraqis, help Iraqis, according to certain details accepted from both countries, it is accepted.

ARRAF: So he's basically saying that if there are agreements in place which have been accepted by an Iraqi prime minister that Sadr himself will have a role in choosing, he's not going to object to U.S. troops here. Now, the Sayid in front of his name refers to the fact that he's a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, and he comes from a revered family of Shia religious scholars. He actually studied in Iran. But in recent years he's distanced himself, and Sheikh Obeidi, his spokesman, also said that he not only resists what was the U.S. occupation, he is going to make sure that Iran does not interfere in forming a government.

MARTIN: So meanwhile, an important U.S. official is in Baghdad right now, White House envoy Brett McGurk. I would think that the Americans would not want to send McGurk at this moment when the Iraqi government's trying to figure out what it wants to be. What's he doing there?

ARRAF: Well, that's a great question. You know, the U.S., of course, says it doesn't get involved in internal Iraqi politics, but he is in on every meeting. He's been publicly photographed with all of these officials. And they're hoping for some continuity. They were really betting on Abadi, as were other Western countries, and this has come as kind of a surprise to them. So what the U.S. would like is continuity in the sense of they would like a government that continues economic reform, that continues with agreements to keep U.S. troops in place and that isn't completely under the thumb of Iran. So that is what he's trying to do, and that's why a lot of these meetings are taking place.

MARTIN: Interesting. NPR's Jane Arraf reporting for us from Baghdad this morning. Thanks so much, Jane.

ARRAF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.