Iraq Oil Report's Daily Brief compiles the most important news and analysis about Iraq from around the web.

Firebrand cleric Muqtada Sadr’s alliance holds a surprise lead in Iraq elections

Nabih Bulos reports for LA Times:

An alliance led by Muqtada Sadr, the anti-U.S. firebrand cleric-turned-reformist, was leading Iraq's parliamentary elections in preliminary results announced early Monday.

A victory for Sadr would be a major upset for Prime Minister Haider Abadi, who led the country during its four-year battle against Islamic State and is supported by the U.S. and other Western nations.

Abadi was widely seen as the front-runner. But with the vote tallied in 10 of the country's 19 provinces, he was in third, well behind both Sadr and an alliance of paramilitary factions, many of which are supported by Iran and led by Shiite militia leader Hadi Ameri.

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As Iraq moves on with vote, Falluja trapped by sins of the past

Ahmed Aboulenein writes for Reuters:

Braving a nationwide driving ban, hundreds of Iraqis walked through Falluja and stepped over barbed wire surrounding a school to vote in a parliamentary election they hope will help a city far from recovering from years of conflict and upheaval.

For them the election is not merely the first since the Islamic State militants who seized their city four years ago were defeated. Falluja’s suffering is multi-layered.

It is also the first vote since U.S. troops who invaded Iraq in 2003 and pulverized much of their city in an offensive against insurgents left the country in 2011.

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A Shia Cleric’s Radical Vision for Iraq

Krishnadev Calamur writes for The Atlantic:

Soon after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, a CBS News crew interviewed a young Shia cleric who explained what was happening in his country this way: “The little serpent has left,” Moqtada al-Sadr said, referring to the ousted dictator, “and the great serpent [the United States] has come.”

In the early days of the post-Saddam era, U.S. military officials variously described Sadr as an “annoyance” and a “thug.” But he quickly transformed himself into an influential—and controversial—figure. His fighters committed brutal atrocities in the post-invasion violence, fought the U.S. military in Sadr City and Basra, and were known for their corruption. A 2006 Newsweek cover story even labeled Sadr “the most dangerous man in Iraq.” Fifteen years after the fall of Saddam, Sadr, now 44 years old, is warily viewed as a potential kingmaker in Iraq’s parliamentary elections on Saturday. In a country riven by sectarian tensions and regional politics, Sadr has transformed himself again: He has now positioned himself as an Iraqi nationalist; allied himself with communists, Sunnis, and political independents; criticized Iran’s outsized influence in Iraq; and strongly criticized the sectarian nature of Iraq’s politics.

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In Iraq’s crumbling Basra, a yearning for a better past

Ulf Laessing writes for Reuters:

When Iraqi merchant Jabar Mohamed was growing up in the southern port city of Basra, he liked to watch boats gliding along a canal lined with palm trees and ancient buildings near his home.

Once dubbed the “Venice of the Middle East” for its network of canals resembling the Italian city, Basra was a magnet for Middle Eastern tourists until the early 1980s.

Today the cherished canal of Mohamed’s youth is a reeking, refuse-filled cesspool forcing passersby to cover their mouths.

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Iraqi voters are fed up with the old guard

The Economist reports:

Haider al-Abadi, the prime minister of Iraq, has a strong case for re-election. He has overseen the defeat of Islamic State (IS), which once held vast portions of the country. He denied a Kurdish push for independence last year. Oil production is near record levels and rising. And he has learned to play foreign powers off against each other. No wonder he calls his inclusive electoral list of Shias, Sunnis and Kurds the “Victory Alliance”.

But as Iraqis go to the polls to elect a new parliament on May 12th, many will be thinking about the economy. Unemployment is up and salaries are down. GDP per person has fallen from almost $7,000 in 2013 to under $5,000 last year. Much of this is a result of the war with IS. Mr Abadi, though, has failed to tackle corruption, increase transparency or reform the system by which ministries are divvied up (and plundered) by sect and ethnicity. He shies away from a showdown with fellow Shia politicians who have ruled Iraq since America installed them 15 years ago.

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Trump’s Iran decision puts Iraq leaders to the test

Samia Nakhoul writes for Reuters:

President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iranian nuclear deal has cast a shadow over an already fraught election in Iraq, where Tehran and Washington have vied for influence since the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.

The removal of a Sunni dictatorship cleared the path for the country’s Shi’ite majority, from which the three top contenders for the premiership, including incumbent Haider al-Abadi, are drawn. The outcome of the May 12 ballot is too close to call.

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Iraq’s Looming Election Has ISIS Spooked

Borzou Daragahi writes for The Atlantic:

The Islamic State has issued a stern warning to any Sunni Muslims planning to taking part in Iraq’s upcoming general elections—don’t.

On April 22, Abu al-Hassan al-Muhajir, the spokesman of ISIS, delivered a speech filled with lengthy Koranic verses and fiery religious rhetoric. He reserved his harshest words for Iraq’s Sunnis, who constitute the backbone of ISIS. “We warn you against assuming the debts of those who have committed every form of apostasy. The voting centers and those within them are targets of our swords,” Muhajir said. Stay out of voting centers on May 12, the day of the polls—don’t even walk near them, Muhajir warned Iraq’s Sunni Arabs, who are believed to account for some 20 to 25 percent of Iraq’s 30 million peopleEven those who oppose ISIS should stay home rather than “support or assist the rejectionist polytheists or their apostate lackeys regarded as Sunnis,” Muhajir said, referring to Shia Muslims, who revere saints or imams, along with any Sunnis who cooperate with the government in Baghdad.

While Muhajir’s tirade could have simply been the depraved rant of a mass murderer, it would be foolish to ignore his words. An explicit threat from ISIS to target Iraq’s parliamentary elections shows the importance of that vote, and suggests the weakened jihadi group’s persistent ability to wreak havoc in the country. Iraqi media has reported more than 15 assassination attempts against candidates or election officials over the past month. On Monday, ISIS claimed responsibility for the assassination of Sunni parliamentary candidate Farouq al-Jabouri, a candidate running on the election list of Ayad Allawi, Iraq’s former U.S.-backed prime minister. Iraq will bar firearms during election day and close its border crossings and airports for 24 hours before polling stations open on Saturday. Officials know that ISIS may be down, but it is certainly not out.

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Iraq says five IS commanders captured after crossing from Syria: state TV

Reuters reports:

Iraq captured five Islamic State commanders after its intelligence services lured them into crossing from neighboring Syria, Iraqi state TV reported on Wednesday.

It described the five as “some of the most wanted” leaders of the group. They were named as Saddam al-Jammel, Mohamed al-Qadeer, Ismail al-Eithawi, Omar al-Karbouli and Essam al-Zawbai and were shown in yellow prisoner uniforms.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said last month he would “take all necessary measures” against militants based in Syria. The Iraqi air force has carried out several air strikes since last year against Islamic State positions in Syrian territory.

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In crowded field, Iraq election hopefuls vie to stand out

Ali Choukeir writes for AFP:

With campaign posters cluttering the streets of Iraq, the almost 7,000 candidates running for parliament in upcoming elections are resorting to increasingly wacky pitches to woo voters.

As they bid for one of the 329 seats up for grabs the would-be MPs seem to be outdoing each other with eye-catching slogans, ranging from the amusing to the downright bizarre.

"Vote for Anuar al-Waili, her cousin owns a tyre shop in Australia," reads one full-page newspaper advert published ahead of the May 12 nationwide poll.

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Iraqi election highlights Basra corruption

Colin Freeman writes for The National:

Complete with coffee shops, perfumeries and pizza parlours, the gleaming atrium of Basra's Times Square Mall are a glimpse of how a peaceful Iraq may one day look.

Outside the mall, meanwhile, the smell on the air is not usually fresh pizza or coffee, but an equally fresh smell of sewage – the result of long-unsolved sanitation problems that also make Basra's salty tap water all but undrinkable.

Ahead of this Saturday's elections, Haider Al Abadi, the country's prime minister, has blamed all these problems on another, equally strong smell coming out of Basra – the stench of corruption, on a massive scale.

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