RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
For years, the United States pursued democracy in Iraq. Now the country has it and all that comes with it. With most of the votes counted, the populist alliance led by cleric Muqtada al-Sadr looks likely to come out on top in Iraq's parliamentary election. You might remember that name from some of the bloodiest years of the Iraq War, when Muqtada al-Sadr led his Shiite militias against U.S. forces in Baghdad and Najaf. For more on the re-emergence of Sadr, we're joined by retired Lieutenant General Sean MacFarland. He is in our studios this morning.
Thank you so much for coming in, General.
SEAN MACFARLAND: You're welcome.
MARTIN: You most recently commanded U.S. forces in the war against ISIS in Iraq, but you also, as a staff officer, planned these operations against Sadr. Can you take us back to those earlier years around 2004? What kind of threat did Sadr pose?
MACFARLAND: Well, he's been on a journey, so to speak. And when he first emerged on the scene, it was with a bang with his Mahdi militia, the Jaish al-Mahdi, that began to take up arms against our forces in Najaf and Karbala and forced us to take pretty strong measures to - in response to that. And at one point, we viewed him as a significant threat to the campaign and the democratization of Iraq, and he was pretty high on our list of people that we wanted to take off the battlefield, so to speak.
MARTIN: Eliminate. So you saw him as a threat to Iraq's democracy, and now he is - his rise is a byproduct of Iraq's democracy. Is it disheartening in some ways to see someone U.S. forces fought so hard against who was responsible for so many American deaths now rise to power there?
MACFARLAND: It's surprising, certainly. And he would not have been our choice for the No. 1 spot in the recent elections. Obviously, Prime Minister Abadi is a great partner. That said, as I said, he's evolving towards a more pragmatic stance in a lot of ways, and he and Abadi do share some policy goals in terms of countercorruption and reform within the government. So...
MARTIN: So you think it's a good thing for Iraq?
MACFARLAND: No, not necessarily. It's remains to be seen. I think that he's a game-changer in some ways. First of all, it's not - let's not assume that he's going - his group is going to end up picking the prime minister. They may play a role.
MARTIN: Right. They're still sorting that out.
MACFARLAND: That's right. But, you know, the people that are probably most concerned with his rise are probably in Iran, as well. You know, he...
MARTIN: Because even though he's a Shiite cleric, he has not been a friend of Iran at all turns.
MACFARLAND: Well, that's right. And in fact, members of his list have actually made comments to the effect that they see a role for the United States and the West in Iraq, so he's come a long way in his perception. As somebody once said, there's nothing like the prospect of getting hung to focus the mind wonderfully, and I think the ISIS threat has focused his mind a little bit more clearly about the need for American and Western support.
MARTIN: So that's interesting. I guess, in the seconds remaining, if you could take a step back - because you commanded U.S. forces against ISIS in Iraq - you were the commander there - do you think that Iraq is in a position, with this coalition of Sadr's on the rise - do you think that coalition can bring together all the different factions?
MACFARLAND: Well, Prime Minister Abadi is probably the best-positioned to do that because he has a strong level of support within the Sunni community as a result of his efforts against ISIS. Mosul, I think, went for Abadi in this election. So he's in the best position. If he can form a coalition with the likes of Sadr, I think that Iraq does have a good chance of moving past their sectarian past. And I think that perhaps the ISIS fight was - may have a silver lining in that regard.
MARTIN: Retired Lieutenant General Sean MacFarland. He led the U.S. war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Thanks for your time this morning.
MACFARLAND: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.