May 15, 2010


The Kingmaker: When it comes to electing Iraq's next prime minister, Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's vote may be the only one that counts. (Babak Dehghanpisheh, 5/14/10, NEWSWEEK)

[I]n terms of raw influence, Sadr is now the most powerful man in Iraq. Almost immediately after the March 7national elections, audience-seekers from Baghdad began arriving in Iran—a vice president, and even a personal envoy from Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki himself, together with senior representatives from every other major political bloc in Iraq. And they came bearing offerings: the prime minister's envoy was ready to free Mahdi Army detainees in exchange for Sadr's support, and the emissary representing Ayad Allawi, the candidate who had won the most votes, promised a generous array of ministerial postings. (Representatives from both the prime minister and Allawi's bloc deny making these offers.) Almost three months after the balloting, the election's official results have yet to be certified. But when that finally happens, it's clear that Sadr will cast the deciding vote on Iraq's next prime minister.

Sadr's beard is streaked with gray now, but he hasn't lost his fire in the four years since NEWSWEEK called him "the most dangerous man in Iraq." "The military resistance will continue," he warned in a recent interview with Al-Jazeera. "We are inside the political process, but I will deal with the politicians in a political way and with the nonpoliticians in a nonpolitical way." He and his followers insist that his Mahdi Army will remain armed and ready to fight at least until the Americans get out of Iraq. "As long as there is this kind of occupation, we have a right to keep this wing," says Sadrist spokesman Sheik Salah Obeidi.

At present the emphasis is on politics—and that's enough to worry about. It looked like grounds for hope when Allawi's nonsectarian Iraqiya list of candidates captured at least a slim plurality of seats in the March elections. Many observers saw it as a clear sign that Sunnis had finally decided to participate in the political process in a meaningful way. But that hope faded with the recent announcement by the Sadrist--dominated Iraqi National Alliance and Maliki's State of Law coalition that they were joining forces, essentially forming a Shiite mega-coalition—a merger that Tehran has intensely lobbied for since even before the election.

Iraq's Constitution gives the first shot at forming the new government to Allawi, as leader of the party that won the most seats. Still, the Maliki-Sadr coalition is scarcely inclined to let him have the votes he'll need. Together they now control the single largest bloc of seats in the Iraqi Parliament, effectively shutting out Allawi's Sunni partners from any serious role in the upcoming government. "The only alliance that we are scared of is one that is established on a sectarian basis, just like 2005," says Taha Luhaibi, who ran on the Iraqiya ticket. "If such an alliance happened again, it would be a big shock for the Iraqi people." The fear is a return to a broad, Sunni-led insurgency, an outcome that seemed unthinkable right after the vote.

We're not there yet. In fact, Maliki can't hope to form a new government without Sadr's help--and the Sadrists have a deep-rooted hatred of Maliki, remembering the bloody military offensives he approved against the Mahdi Army in Basra in 2007 and in Sadr City in 2008. Shortly after the elections the Sadrists held an unofficial referendum to decide who should be the next prime minister, and Maliki finished a miserable fourth, with 10 percent of the vote, behind former prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari; Moqtada's distant cousin (and brother-in-law) Jafar Sadr; and a Sadrist M.P. named Qusay al-Suhail. Moqtada himself mentioned the bad blood in his recent interview with Al-Jazeera. "We have negative ideas about Maliki," he said. "He refused to share the powers, as if he owned the whole government. This was wrong." If the Sadrists back Maliki at all, they're sure to demand major political concessions, including an agreement to leave the Mahdi Army alone.

That willingness to work within the political system if it vindicates the Shi'a majority but to act militarily if it can not even protect them is precisely what is required.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 15, 2010 7:27 AM
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