The political movement of Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is wielding increasing clout as the tortuous process of forming a new Iraqi government continues.
In recent days, the Sadrist party Al-Ahrar has indicated that it is backing Vice-President Adel Abdul Mahdi for the post of prime minister. Until now, the competition for the job has been seen as a straight fight between incumbent prime minister Nuri al-Maliki and Ayad Allawi, leader of the mostly secular Iraqiya coalition which includes top Sunni leaders.
The Sadrists’ endorsement of a third candidate exposes cracks within the Shia coalition that consists of Maliki’s State of Law party; the Iraqi National Alliance, INA, which is led by the Sadrists, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, ISCI, and a handful of smaller groups.
The Shia bloc needs to come up with a consensus figure to oppose Allawi, so the introduction of Abdul Mahdi as an alternative to Maliki could prolong the political impasse that has already dragged on for six months since an inconclusive parliamentary election.
Some Al-Ahrar members insist Maliki has to go.
“We are not going to negotiate with State of Law unless they offer an alternative candidate to Maliki for the prime minister’s post,” said Qusay al-Suhail, a Sadrist leader.
Yet others are more open to compromise, indicating that they would, after all, accept Maliki if that was the consensus view across the Shia coalition.
Baha al-Araji, a senior Sadrist lawmaker and former head of the parliamentary committee for legal affairs, says the proposal that Mahdi should be the Shia candidate is intended as a constructive way of breaking the current deadlock.
“The failure to come to an agreement on a prime minister means taking another route – a compromise candidate,” he said. “There have been agreements inside INA that led to the choice of Abdul Mahdi, and the Sadrists have given the green light for him to be prime minister.”
Nevertheless, Araji said, Al-Ahrar would abide by any choice made by the majority in the Shia coalition.
“We are still part of the national coalition with the State of Law, so now there will be a competition between Maliki and Mahdi to choose one of them as our candidate for prime minister,” added Araji
IWPR understands that INA and State of Law have agreed a process whereby each will name its preferred candidate, one of whom will be selected by a majority vote.
The Sadrists’ opposition to Maliki remaining prime minister is due in part to his role in the 2008 campaign against their military arm, the Mahdi Army, that ousted the force from its strongholds in Basra, Karbala and parts of southern Baghdad.
The joint US-Iraqi campaign inflicted heavy losses on the the Sadrists and their Mahdi Army, and prompted Sadr himself to leave for Iran, where he reportedly remains to this day.
The Sadrists, however, regrouped as a significant political force with a populist platform that won it strong support among millions of Shia in Baghdad’s urban slums. The Sadrists won 39 seats in the March elections – more than any other faction within the INA, which won 70 seats in total.
“In the ongoing negotiations on forming the next government, the Sadrists’ influence has grown because of the high number of seats they received in the parliamentary election,” Mohammed al-Bayati, an ISCI parliamentarian, said. “Their leverage is growing every day.”
Iraq politicians are split over the growing influence of the Sadrists. Some see it as beneficial, while others suspect a ploy to promote an anti-American agenda.
“The Sadrists are able to turn the political equation upside down,” said Haider Jourani, a State of Law parliamentarian. “They are adamant in their demands and that gives them the ability to break many potential deals. The disagreements between State of Law and the Sadrists can only be solved by dialogue – and dialogue takes time.”
Although the Sadrists have not made any public demands for positions in government, analysts believed they are holding out for key ministries and a role in curtailing American influence.
Political analyst Hadi Mari believes that the Sadrists are standing out against Maliki because they are aware he is under pressure from Washington to curb their influence. On a recent visit to Iraq, Vice-President Joseph Biden did not meet Sadrist officials and openly denounced the possibility that they would take a role in government.
“Baghdad will clip the wings of the Sadrists again if that’s what Washington wants. The Sadrists are afraid of the US proposal for a Maliki-Allawi power-sharing deal, because it would undermine their political future. Maliki would strike the Sadrists and any Islamist group that is close to Iran if he is given a second term,” Mari said. “Ruling out Maliki as a candidate for prime minister is the only weapon left to the Sadrists because his return would mean a new campaign against them.”
Sadr’s followers expect him to return once a government supported by his movement emerges. His reappearance would complicate the political process and create extra hurdles in relations with the US and other nations.
Al-Ahrar officials say Sadr remains closely involved in his party’s affairs despite his absence.
“There is a common mistake that Muqtada al-Sadr has taken Iran as his headquarters. He is actually there, but Iran is not his headquarters. Sadr travels a lot and was seen lately in Lebanon, Syria and Turkey. He will be coming to Najaf soon to take a direct part in Iraqi politics,” Araji said.
It remains to be seen whether the Sadrist nomination of Abdul Mahdi will break the political deadlock – and what other demands emerge from the resurgent Shia movement.
For now, the negotiations show little sign of throwing up a new government in the near future. Even optimistic estimates put the timeframe at weeks or months.
Progress towards forming a government has been further complicated in recent weeks by coordinated insurgent attacks against security forces across Iraq country, and allegations that the United States and regional governments are interfering in the negotiations. The withdrawal of US combat troops has underscored the lack of a working government and increased the sense of frustration among Iraqis.
“I don’t believe there will be a government in place before October, but the nomination of Abdul Mahdi may lead to renewed efforts,” Ibrahim al-Sumaidi, an independent political analyst based in Baghdad, said.
“Iraq is a country of surprising agreements, and sometimes what’s really going on is the complete opposite of what’s being said to the public. We can only wait and see.”
Basim al-Shara is an IWPR-trained journalist in Baghdad. (Institute for War and Peace Reporting www.iwpr.net)