Three months after it was elected, Iraq's new parliament convened on June 14 for a mere 18 minutes. Two men sat smiling in the front row: the prime minister Nouri al Maliki and Ayad Allawi, the former premier whose coalition won a narrow plurality of seats in the legislature. Each insists that he should lead the next government.
But the man who might well be the kingmaker in forming a government and the selection of a new prime minister was not at the Baghdad convention centre for the swearing-in ceremony. Muqtada al Sadr, the anti-American Shiite cleric, was in the Iranian holy city of Qom, where he has lived in self-imposed exile since 2007.
Soon after the parliamentary elections on March 7, Mr al Sadr 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 ability to form a government. By positioning himself to cast the deciding vote on Iraq's next prime minister, Mr al Sadr has once again shown greater political skill than the United States and his Iraqi rivals usually give him credit for.
Unfortunately, Mr al 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. Already, insurgents are seeking to exploit the political paralysis to once again destabilise Iraq. On Sunday, two car bombs exploded outside a major bank in Baghdad, killing 26 people. It was the second attack on a financial institution in eight days.
Mr al Sadr's influence swelled because no single faction was able to dominate the balloting. Mr Allawi's Iraqiya list won the largest share with 91 seats, followed by Mr al Maliki's State of Law coalition with 89, and the Shiite-led Iraqi National Alliance (INA) with 70 seats. Mr al Sadr's movement won 40 seats, the largest share within the INA. In early June, Mr al Maliki formalised his post-election merger with the INA, giving the two groups 159 seats in the 325-seat legislature.
Mr al Maliki is trying to outmanoeuvre his rival Mr Allawi, whose secular coalition attracted strong support among Iraq's Sunni minority. The Shiite alliance has claimed the right to form a government, which will probably exclude the Sunnis. This threatens to unleash once again the sectarian warfare that shattered Iraq from 2005 to 2007.
But so far, Mr al Sadr and his supporters are reluctant to support Mr al Maliki's reappointment as prime minister. They hold a grudge against Mr al Maliki for launching a crackdown by the Iraqi army in 2008 which devastated Mr al Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army. In a recent interview with Al Jazeera television, Mr al Sadr hinted at the bad blood. “We have negative impressions about Maliki,” he said. “He refused to share his powers, as if he owned the entire government. This was wrong.”
In April, Mr al Sadr's followers held an unofficial referendum to help decide whom the movement should back as prime minister. Mr al Maliki came out fourth, with a mere 10 per cent of the vote, followed by Mr Allawi with nine per cent. The men who received the most votes in the straw poll were Ibrahim al Jaafari, a former prime minister, and Jaafar Baqer al Sadr, the scion of a distinguished clerical family who is also Moqtada's distant cousin. The exercise was probably intended to give Mr al Sadr and his advisers ammunition to veto both Mr al Maliki and Mr Allawi for the premiership, and to support a compromise candidate from the Shiite factions.
As the political jockeying unfolds, Iraq's senior Shiite clerics have remained largely silent. Because Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani and other clerics shun direct political involvement, they create a power vacuum among Iraqi Shiites – one that Mr al Sadr is eager to fill. He wants to be both a respected cleric and a political broker.
In the struggle for power within the Shiite community, Mr al 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. Shortly after the US invasion in 2003, Mr al Sadr's followers took control of hospitals, schools and mosques in parts of Baghdad, Najaf and Karbala. They provided social services in the absence of a central government. He 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 Shiites from Baghdad's slums and southern Iraq.
In 2004, Mr al Sadr twice instigated revolts against US troops in Sadr City and southern Iraq. His militia was crippled in its confrontations with US forces, and Mr al Sadr's future was in doubt. But the cleric's followers infiltrated Iraqi security forces and regrouped across the country. During the sectarian war, the Mahdi Army unleashed death squads that assassinated Sunnis and drove them out of Shiite neighbourhoods.
Mr al 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 Mr al Sadr is on his way to becoming an even more formidable kingmaker in Iraq.
Mohamad Bazzi is an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a journalism professor at New York University.
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