The bad boy of Iraqi politics, anti-American Shi'ite cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr, is once again positioning himself as kingmaker - this time in forming a government and the selection of a new prime minister.
Sadr may well determine the fates of current Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki and his rival Ayad Allawi, a former premier whose coalition won a narrow plurality of seats in the new Parliament. By jockeying to cast the deciding vote on Iraq's next prime minister, Sadr has once again shown greater political skill than his Iraqi rivals and the United States usually give him credit for.
On Oct 1, the day that Iraq surpassed the record - 207 days - for the time between a parliamentary election and the formation of a government, Sadr's political bloc finally backed Mr Maliki in his bid to remain in office. Although Mr Maliki still has not secured a majority in the 325-seat Parliament, Sadr's support is likely to help the Premier in his effort to reach a deal with other factions, especially the Kurds.
But Sadr's political ascendance threatens to stoke sectarian tensions in Iraq: his followers were responsible for some of the worst atrocities against Sunnis during the country's recent civil war. Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army, unleashed death squads that assassinated Sunnis and drove them out of Shi'ite neighbourhoods. The Mahdi Army is among several Iraqi Shi'ite militias that received extensive training and weapons from Iran, according to classified US military field reports released by WikiLeaks last week. The weapons included rockets, magnetic bombs and surface-to-air missiles that were used to attack US forces in Iraq.
Since 2007, Sadr has lived in self-imposed exile in the Iranian holy city of Qom. After the March 7 parliamentary elections, he began receiving emissaries from Iraqi factions seeking his support. The cleric's influence swelled because no single group was able to dominate the balloting. Mr Allawi's Iraqiya list won the largest share with 91 seats, followed by Mr Maliki's State of Law coalition with 89, and the Shi'ite-led Iraqi National Alliance (INA) with 70 seats. Sadr's movement won 40 seats, the largest share within the INA.
Mr Maliki is trying to outmanoeuvre Mr Allawi, whose secular coalition attracted strong support among Iraq's Sunni minority. The Shi'ite alliance has claimed the right to form a government, which will likely exclude the Sunnis. This threatens to once again unleash the sectarian warfare that shattered Iraq from 2005 to 2007.
Sadr represents the triumph of a defiant brand of Shi'ism in Iraq. As the backroom dealing unfolds, Iraq's senior Shi'ite clerics have remained largely silent. Because Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani and other theologians shun direct political involvement, they create a power vacuum among Iraqi Shi'ites - one that Sadr is eager to fill. He wants to be both a respected cleric and a political broker.
In the struggle for power within the Shi'ite community, Sadr had two claims to leadership: He is the son of a revered cleric killed by Saddam Hussein's regime, and he did not leave Iraq to live in comfortable exile during Saddam's rule. Sadr's father, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq Al-Sadr, was one of the pre-eminent scholars of the Shi'ite world. Unlike Grand Ayatollah Sistani, the elder Sadr argued that clerics should be involved in social and political matters.
Amid the euphoria that followed the ouster of Saddam's regime in 2003, clergymen debated their role in politics. Sadr and his supporters argued that they must fill the void left by the Baathist system. They denounced the US occupation and American plans to install an interim government made up mainly of exiled Iraqi politicians like Mr Ahmad Chalabi and Mr Allawi.
Sadr's followers seized control of hospitals, schools and mosques in parts of Baghdad, Najaf and Karbala. Sadr drew tens of thousands to his rallies and Friday sermons. He created the Mahdi Army, which had several thousand fighters - most of them young, impoverished Shi'ites from Baghdad's slums and southern Iraq.
Since he emerged as the fiercest Shi'ite critic of the US occupation, Sadr has been remarkably adept at using religious symbols to position himself as heir to a long line of Shi'ite martyrs. By doing so, he has tapped into a central tenet of Shi'ism: dying in defence of one's beliefs, as the sect's founders did in the seventh century. During months of travelling around Iraq in 2003 and 2004, I saw the same poster hanging in homes and on walls of Shi'ite neighbourhoods: Sadr, cradling his assassinated father, blood dripping from his forehead and chest. The elder Sadr is holding up a copy of the Quran. The faceless shadow of Shi'ism's founding figure, Imam Ali, looms over father and son.
In reality, Sadr was not with his father when agents of the Baathist regime gunned him down in 1999. The cleric's two eldest sons were with him, and they too were killed. But the painting is one example of how Sadr has used his father's martyrdom to build support among Iraqi Shi'ites. And it helps explain why young Iraqis were willing to die for him, even as senior clerics urged them to avoid confronting US forces.
Sadr started out as a militia leader, with the populist appeal and credibility that comes from being heir to a family of martyrs. He then turned himself into one of Iraq's most effective and ruthless politicians. The elder clerics watched from the sidelines, confident that their rarefied religious authority would be more enduring than the young upstart's fleeting political power. But now he is on his way to becoming an even more formidable kingmaker in Iraq.
The writer is an adjunct senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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