Shiite Sadrists play key role after Iraq election


Published: Thursday, April 1, 2010 at 5:53 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, April 1, 2010 at 5:53 p.m.

BAGHDAD — Anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose power once seemed all but crushed, has made a remarkable political resurgence in Iraq's parliamentary elections. The Iran-based Shiite leader is now poised to play a key role in choosing Iraq's next prime minister.

He may use his newfound clout to push his archenemy, Nouri al-Maliki, from power.

Sadrist support is crucial for al-Maliki as he tries to assemble enough Shiite backing to remain prime minister. But the young cleric is holding a referendum among his supporters Friday and Saturday to decide whom to support for the post. The move is widely viewed as a way to give himself the opportunity to back someone other than al-Maliki, under the guise of following the people's will.

It's a piquant bit of political revenge for al-Sadr and his supporters, who have hated al-Maliki since he crushed al-Sadr's powerful militia in 2008. The Mahdi Army, as the force is called, once led bloody uprisings against American forces and were blamed by Sunnis for some of the worst sectarian violence in 2006-2007.

The Sadrists' main condition for joining a Shiite alliance "is that al-Maliki give up his nomination as prime minister," said Kazim al-Muqdadi, a political analyst at Baghdad University. Or in return for his staying, they might demand such important posts as the interior or defense ministries — "demands al-Maliki might not accept."

Whoever al-Sadr ends up backing, the election success shows the 36-year-old cleric will likely be an important powerbroker shaping Iraq as U.S. forces withdraw by the end of 2011.

Al-Sadr's followers won at least 39 seats in the 325-seat parliament in the March 7 vote, up 10 seats from their current standing. That makes them the largest bloc within the Iraqi National Alliance, a Shiite religious coalition that placed third in the race.

Neighboring Iran is widely believed to want a Shiite alliance to form the government, like the previous one. Negotiators from al-Maliki's State of Law bloc and the INA were in Iran this week. But the talks failed to produce little more than allegations of interference by Iran into Iraq's political process.

So far al-Maliki's efforts to court the INA have been rebuffed, largely due to the Sadrists.

Al-Maliki needs allies. His Shiite-dominated State of Law slate received 89 seats, compared to 91 seats for the Iraqiya list led by secular challenger Ayad Allawi, a Shiite who drew on Sunni support and is now leading his own negotiations to form a government.

The enmity between the Sadrists and al-Maliki is deep-rooted.

The Sadrists were key supporters when al-Maliki formed his government in 2006. Two years later, he turned on them and routed their militias, jailing thousands of al-Sadr supporters in a campaign to destroy militias in the southern city of Basra and Sadr City, the sprawling Shiite slum in Baghdad that is a Sadrist stronghold.

"Al-Maliki is not a suitable man to lead the country," said Sadr City resident Abbas al-Saeidi. He ticked off a long list of grievances against the prime minister such as unemployment and detainees still in jail. "The time has come to slap him back."

It's unclear who the Sadrists would want instead of al-Maliki. In the referendum, al-Sadr's supporters can choose between al-Maliki, Allawi, former prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi, or Mohammed Jaffar al-Sadr who ran on al-Maliki's list but has al-Sadr family ties — or they can write in another choice.

The Sadrists have kept their options open on aligning with Allawi, whose secular position and American ties make him disliked by many al-Sadr followers.

In a possible nod to Allawi, they've warned repeatedly that a government without legitimate Sunni support would be unstable. Sadrist negotiators are traveling to Sunni-led Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia in coming days to consult on government negotiations, said an official close to the talks who did not want to be identified due to the sensitivity of the negotiations.

Al-Sadr rose to prominence after the 2003-U.S. led invasion, forging a political dynasty based on the network and prestige of his father, a leading Shiite cleric killed by Saddam Hussein in 1999.

Unlike other Shiite political figures, he refused to work with the United States. His unwavering opposition to the occupation is a core part of his identity and appeal to followers.

In one of the fiercest battles of the war, al-Sadr's Mahdi Army in 2004 battled U.S. and Iraqi forces in the Shiite holy city of Najaf until a ceasefire.

One Sadrist official hangs a photo in his office of Iraqi children throwing stones at a U.S. tank as a reminder of the widespread opposition to the American forces.

Al-Sadr, with his nationalist stance, has also long been wary of Iranian influence. But some have questioned whether he has fallen more under Tehran's sway because he has spent the last two years in the Iranian city of Qom, ostensibly to further his religious studies.

His strength is his grassroots organization. Sadrist officials generally live in the neighborhoods they represent, unlike many Iraqi politicians who live in barricaded villas and often keep their families abroad. Sadrist welfare programs have made them popular with Iraq's underclass.

In the election, the Sadrists showed a savviness about the complicated electoral system that other coalitions lacked.

They began organizing last April, Sadrist official Ameer Taher al-Kinani said. They were highly selective about which constituencies they ran in and what candidates they fielded, after studying countries such as Lebanon and Turkey that have similar secular and religious divisions.

On election day, they made sure their supporters went to the polls.

"It shows how organized they are, how shrewd they are," said Michael Hanna, an Iraq analyst with the New York-based Century Foundation. "The Sadrists didn't get that many votes but they were organized and tactical in how they approached voting."

How a government with Sadrist support would look is another matter. While in government before 2008, they were accused of siphoning off money from the ministries they controlled. A key Sadr ally who was deputy health minister was charged with letting death squads use ambulances and government hospitals to carry out kidnappings and killings. The charges against Hakim al-Zamili were dismissed, and he was one of the Sadrist candidates to win a seat on March 7.

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Associated Press writers Hamid Ahmed and Qassim Abdul-Zahra contributed to this report.

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