After years of sectarianism, violence, instability and corruption, exacerbated by a protracted and costly battle against Daesh that reduced a number of cities to rubble, many looked to the recent Iraqi national elections as a turning point in Iraqi fortunes.
However, a disappointing election turnout, controversy over alleged election malpractices, an upsurge of Daesh attacks, and the tough task of cobbling together a workable coalition amongst several divergent electoral alliances illustrates the difficult task that looms ahead for Iraq.
At least the election threw a surprise, with the Sairoon (On the Move) coalition of influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr attaining 54 seats, well ahead of incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's Nasr (Victory) alliance that was widely tipped for victory.
With al-Sadr running on an anti-Iranian, pro-Arab nationalist and cross sectarian platform, many analysts viewed his electoral success as a rejection of Iranian interference and thus as a setback to Tehran. There was also hope for a nonsectarian government that could heal the fractured Iraqi divide, deal with corruption and serve the long-suffering working class.
However, as symbolic as it seems, 54 seats is far from a winning position. It needed to form a broad coalition amongst a number of other lists. Many had predicted various permutations for an al-Sadr alliance, but the surprise announcement to form a coalition with Iran-backed Fateh (Conquest) alliance, a political umbrella of Shiite Hashd al-Shaabi militia forces, or Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), came unexpected.
Fateh, led by veteran paramilitary commander Hadi al-Amiri, won 47 seats. Al-Sadr had previously criticized the proposed pre-election alliance between al-Abadi's Nasr alliance and Fateh even though it never came to fruition.
Whilst al-Sadr hailed this alliance as "this move comes from a spirit of patriotism," the move draws many questions towards al-Sadr. What about the anti-Tehran rhetoric that was a hallmark of his campaign? Was it Iranian pressure that resulted in this coalition, and what does it mean for the coalition within Sairoon as well as al-Sadr's proposed coalition government with Iyad Allawi's al-Wataniya bloc that comprised of a number of Sunni groups and Ammar al-Hakim's National Wisdom Movement? In addition, does this bring a sectarian government back on the agenda?
Even if al-Sadr could entice all the aforementioned groups under the same umbrella, these groups still lack the majority needed to form a governing coalition (165 out of 329 seats). Al-Sadr would then have to reach out to the main Kurdish parties or other Shiite lists.
Both the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), who together polled 43 seats, have expressed initial positivity towards the Sairoon-Fateh alliance, but the Kurdish vote, that would be enough to form a majority government, would inevitably be tied to key concessions to the cautious Kurds.
Whilst al-Sadr has indicated his coalition is open to all lists, the already broad coalition is a recipe for infighting, instability and indecisiveness. For example, each electoral alliance, even without more coalition partners, was already comprised of a number of political parties that would be difficult to placate long-term.
Ironically, the latest coalition dealings potentially leave al-Abadi or his bloc without a role in the future government of Iraq.
Al-Sadr's decision to align with Fateh drew criticism from a number of circles. Far from the defeat for Tehran, that some heralded, it signals the continuation of Iranian influence over Baghdad. It also places the spotlight on future relations with the U.S.-led coalition support vital to defeating Daesh and stemming the tide after Daesh took over large swathes of land in 2014.
However, the animosity between Tehran and Washington, and U.S. goals to curb growing Iranian influence in Iraq and the wider region is hardly a secret.
The focus on coalition building should not distract from the lofty challenges that await the future government. With the rise of the PMF, Iraq now has a number of influential armed groups with debatable control from Baghdad even if the PMF were enshrined as part of state forces. Both al-Sadr and Amiri control sizable militia forces.
A recent military skirmish between Iraqi police and militia fighters from Hezbollah Brigades, a part of PMF, in Baghdad underscore the brittle reality on the ground.
The recent bombing of PMF forces in Syria, close to the Iraqi border, also brings into question al-Abadi's pledge that Iraqi forces would not intervene in regional affairs.
Whether PMF will continue to support Iranian forces in Syria, and who has greater influence over the PMF, Baghdad or Tehran is another question.
Then there is the crucial factor of the disenchanted and long-suffering Sunni population. It was Sunni areas that were largely the theater for initial Daesh tyranny and later the bloody battle between Daesh and Iraqi forces.
Can al-Sadr and his coalition partners truly entice the Sunnis into the political fold? What about the billions of dollars needed for reconstruction and will they provide arms to Sunni tribes, as some tribal leaders urge, to protect their communities?
The rise of Daesh attacks in Sunni areas indicates that the battle against Daesh is far from over, whilst Sunnis remain wary of both PMF and state forces.
Keeping the impossible balance between so many coalitions, sectarian groupings, ethnicities and influence from religious authorities both within and outside of Iraq, not to mention foreign meddling, just goes to demonstrate the tough battle ahead for Iraq.
For example, revered Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani deeply opposed the participation of the PMF in elections, and yet, not only did they come second in overall polling, but they are about to form an unpredictable partnership with al-Sadr.