The bad boy of Iraqi politics, the anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada 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 political 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 the United States and his Iraqi rivals usually give him credit for.
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 Shiite neighborhoods.
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 political factions seeking his support. He quickly gravitated toward a new Shiite political alliance that is now four seats shy of a majority in the parliament--and the power to select a prime minister and form a cabinet.