Iraqi Shiite cleric and leader Moqtada al-Sadr (C-R) casts his ballot in the central holy city of Najaf on May 12, 2018 as the country votes in the first parliamentary election since declaring victory over the Islamic State (IS) group
Baghdad (AFP) - A surprise alliance between the winners of Iraq's election appears to reflect manoeuvering by neighbouring Iran to form a broad Shiite coalition as it scrambles to protect its influence.
When nationalist cleric Moqtada Sadr's bloc scooped the most seats at May's poll it was seen as a blow for Tehran, long the dominant foreign player in conflict-hit Iraq.
Shiite firebrand Sadr had railed against both the influence of Iran and the United States, even drawing closer to Tehran's arch-foe Saudi Arabia as he insisted Iraqis should run their own affairs.
So an announcement on Tuesday that he was linking up with the pro-Iranian former fighters under Hadi al-Ameri who finished second at the election was a shock to Iraq's political class.
Insiders said the unlikely tie-up to try to form a new government came after Iran decided that if it couldn't beat Sadr, then it might be better to seek to join him.
In the immediate aftermath of the vote, Tehran had launched a political offensive to try to unite its allies and block Sadr's path to power.
But Iran changed tack on realising pushing the popular cleric aside was too problematic, and instead sought to include Sadr in a Shiite alliance broad enough to neutralise his influence.
At a meeting Sunday with Ameri and former premier Nuri al-Maliki at Iran's embassy in Baghdad, top emissaries from Tehran apparently endorsed a link-up with Sadr as the lesser of two evils.
"Dismissing Moqtada Sadr could allow him to assemble other groups and increase the criticism levelled at Iran's role in Iraq," said a source close to participants of the meeting.
The gathering involved influential Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and Mojtaba Khamenei, son of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Soleimani used the opportunity to call for "a strong government, far from American and Saudi pressure and from foreign interference", the same source told AFP.
If the broad Shiite alliance gets off the ground Iran will be "the first to support the next government in Iraq," Soleimani was quote as saying.
- 'Pragmatic' politicians -
Ahmad al-Assadi, spokesman for Ameri's Conquest Alliance, said it was natural that outside powers were interested in what was happening in Iraq.
Developments in the country are "important for neighbouring countries and great powers, especially Iran and the US", he told AFP.
Iran has become the major player since the US-led invasion of 2003, while the Americans led a coalition to oust the Islamic State group last year.
"It's evident that their representatives in Iraq follow the situation, pose questions and offer advice," Assadi said.
While the alliance between Ameri and Sadr might appear unlikely, analysts said both have a track record as practical politicians.
Ahead of the elections they pitched themselves as outsiders looking to sweep clean the tarnished elite that has dominated Iraq since the ouster of Saddam Hussein.
"Pragmatic positioning rather than ideology has governed their behaviour in recent years," said Iraq analyst Fanar Haddad.
He said that even if a government turned out to be ostensibly closer to Tehran it could not shut out US influence entirely.
"Messaging and ideology aside, practically speaking no Iraqi government today -- especially a broad coalition as the next one is likely to be -- can actually be anti-Iranian or anti-American," he said.
- A broad coalition -
As the coalition government materialises, three candidates have emerged for the post of prime minister.
They are outgoing premier Haider al-Abadi, his interior minister Qassem al-Araji who is close to Ameri, and Mohammad al-Sudani, a former rights minister under Maliki.
"There will be other candidates but the Shiite alliance must choose two who will be put to a vote by the new parliament," the source from the embassy meeting said.
The alliance sealed at Sadr's home in Najaf, south of Baghdad, is however just the first step towards an even larger coalition according to Assadi.
"We have invited all of the lists elected to participate in writing a government programme which they will agree on," he said.
Sadr has already signed a coalition agreement with Shiite Ammar al-Hakim's Al-Hikma list and the secular outgoing vice-president Iyad Allawi, whose list was comprised largely of Sunnis.
But for some within the cleric's Marching Towards Reform alliance -- a coupling of Sadr supporters and communists -- the vision is different.
Raed Fahmi, head of the Iraqi Communist Party, said he is seeking a pro-reform alliance and has found common ground with Ameri's Conquest Alliance.
"But that's not the case with all of the groups and we are not looking to put together a Shiite alliance," he said, singling out Maliki's bloc.
"We campaigned against corruption and for the renewal of the political class."