IRAQ: Al-Sadr’s Political Ambitions

January 27, 2005

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Is Muqtada al-Sadr serious about entering Iraqi politics?

Nothing is certain, but the rebellious Shiite cleric has vowed to disarm his militia, the Mahdi Army, and enter conventional politics—which could alter the political scene both nationwide and within the Shiite community. Sadr’s strong opposition to the U.S. presence in Iraq has made him a hugely popular national figure, but no one is sure how he’ll use his new influence. “Sadr’s violence is not just violence for its own sake,” says Daniel P. Serwer, director of peace and stability operations at the United States Institute of Peace. “He’s staking out political territory. He’s gaining politically from the conflict with the Americans.”

What’s changed to make Sadr’s vows to disarm more credible?

Sadr has provoked uprisings before—notably in Najaf in April and August—and then claimed he would disarm as part of negotiated settlements to both crises. However, the Mahdi Army was never disarmed, and Sadr did not hesitate to call his fighters back to the streets. But in August his forces in Najaf suffered a serious defeat by U.S. forces, followed by heavy pounding in the Baghdad slum called Sadr City, and experts think this time Sadr might finally live up to his promises. They say that Sadr, after pushing the armed rebellion as far as he could, may be turning to electoral politics to pursue his agenda.

What are the terms of the latest ceasefire deal?

A deal brokered by the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani ended the August standoff in Najaf, but violence between Sadr loyalists and U.S. forces continued in Sadr City. A ceasefire was called there October 9 under which members of the Mahdi Army would trade in their arms for cash in return for a withdrawal of U.S. patrols and an influx of money to rebuild the city. However, experts say the militia has traded in mostly old or broken weapons, and this ceasefire agreement, like previous ones, leaves Sadr in a strong position. “The deal has not fully taken away Sadr’s militia or the insurgent option down the road,” says Kenneth Katzman, senior Middle East analyst at the Congressional Research Service.

What does Sadr’s vow to participate in politics mean?

Experts say that, if Sadr is serious, it could mark a welcome shift from armed resistance to the U.S. presence in Iraq to a domestic political fight between groups representing different Iraqi interests.

Will he take part in the electoral process?

It’s unclear. “I’m not sure he knows himself what his plans are,” says Marina Ottaway, senior associate and democracy expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Sadr’s aides have been meeting with groups across the country to gauge his support in advance of the elections scheduled for January, when Iraqis will select a transitional national assembly that will write a constitution and prepare for the election in 2006 of a permanent government. “[Sadr] is clearly negotiating, and he’s clearly not disarming. This is a person who is determined to be a political player in Iraq. He’s trying to figure out if he can do that through the political process, or violence, or some combination,” Ottaway says.

What is Sadr’s political agenda?

Experts say the new political party Sadr is forming, which may be called the Patriotic Alliance, will likely demand that U.S. “occupying forces” leave Iraq immediately. Other than that, the party’s potential platform is a mystery. Sadr would likely support an Islamic state and perhaps even an Iran-style theocracy. Sadr is reported to be substantially backed by Iran, which U.S. officials say has provided him arms, money, and recruits for his militia.

How will Sadr’s pursuit of political goals affect Shiite politics?

It could split a potentially strong Shiite voting bloc or set off a power struggle in the Shiite community. Iraq’s Shiites, who make up about 60 percent of the country’s population, have several different religious leaders. Sistani has the largest following, including most of the country’s moderate Shiites. Sadr, by contrast, appeals to poor, young, unemployed Shiites, many of whom are crowded into urban slums like Sadr City. Sistani, who has generally adopted a relatively cooperative line with the Americans, has in the past disapproved of the Sadr-inspired armed opposition. He and other Shiite leaders are believed to want to sideline Sadr, who is a relative upstart compared with Iraq’s senior religious figures.

Why do mainstream Shiite groups want to marginalize Sadr?

They’re worried he could incite violence that would threaten the Shiites’ ability to prevail in the January elections. “The danger is that Sadr could act as a spoiler,” Ottaway says. “The establishment has no use for this guy, but they can’t figure out how to get rid of him,” Serwer says. Other experts say the Shiite elite, which was powerless to stop Sadr’s insurgencies, doesn’t have much choice in the matter. “If Sadr functionally decides to participate [in the political process], I don’t see how you could keep him out,” Katzman says.

What is Sistani’s position on Sadr?

Experts say Sistani supports Sadr’s entry into politics as a way to keep a tighter rein on him, but he is worried that Sadr could jeopardize a potential Shiite ascendancy. Sistani is allied with two well-funded, mainstream Shiite political parties: the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which was the main vehicle of Shiite opposition to Saddam Hussein’s regime and has a large, well-funded militia of its own; and the Islamic Dawa Party, a religious political group that seeks to set up an Islamic state in Iraq. Both groups have strong ties to Iran, where Sistani was born. Sistani adheres to the Shiite “quietist” tradition that disapproves of political activity by religious figures. Despite that, Sistani has become one of Iraq’s most influential political figures; only he was able to negotiate a solution to the August Najaf crisis, after repeated attempts by Americans and Allawi failed. “The dilemma of the quietists is that they’re constantly being forced to intervene in politics,” Serwer says. Sistani has consistently supported democratic elections and has said he could back a secular government as long as it respected Shiite interests. “Sistani wants elections set up so that the Shia can win,” Ottaway says.

What is Interim Prime Minister Ayad Alawi’s position?

Allawi, who appeals to educated secularists, including many members of the original Iraqi Governing Council and the current interim government, was unable to negotiate an end to the August uprising. He was threatening to have Iraqi troops—backed by U.S. forces—storm the shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf, where Sadr’s forces were hiding, when Sistani stepped in and resolved the situation. Experts say Allawi views Sadr as a nuisance and a potential threat and is determined to disarm the Mahdi Army. Allawi, a secular Shiite, supports elections and has vowed they will take place as scheduled in January. Experts say the prime minister’s biggest weakness is his lack of support from regular Iraqis, who see him as a puppet of the Americans. “His strength is based on the continued presence of the United States,” Katzman says.

Has Sadr’s political movement gained popular support?

Sadr has strong regional support in Najaf, Sadr City, Basra, Diwaniya, Kufa, and Amara, among other cities. His aides have been meeting with groups across the country in an attempt to broaden his base. Experts say he has reached out to the Association of Muslim Scholars—an influential Sunni organization—as well as Kurds, Christians, and other groups. Sadr has also reportedly made an alliance with Ahmed Chalabi, the controversial former exile who heads the Iraqi National Congress. A former favorite of some Pentagon officials, Chalabi shifted his energies toward the Shiite community after his American backers broke with him this summer.

What are the procedures for the January election?

Voters will vote for or against lists of candidates, not for individual politicians. The lists will be created by the political parties. Each party will rank candidates on a list in order of preference, and seats in the transitional assembly will be awarded, starting at the top of the list, according to the party’s share of the vote. This arrangement helps the larger parties that have national name recognition, Ottaway says. “Parties that are strong regionally but not nationally will not do well at all,” she says.

Will the Shiites put forward a single list of candidates to consolidate their votes?

Possibly, if they can unite their factions in time. Another possibility, experts say, is that a collection of groups—Allawi supporters, moderate Shiites, Kurds, and non-insurgent Sunnis—could create a broad-based slate that has the best chance of winning the most seats. “It’s becoming more and more clear that there will not be slates of candidates by individual political parties but coalitions,” Ottaway says. In this arrangement, known as a “monster coalition,” the major parties might try to persuade Sadr to place some of his candidates on the list’s lower ranks as a way to politically neutralize him. But other experts say the harmony necessary for such a coalition is unlikely. “The Shiite community [alone] is notoriously fragmented politically, and there’s little probability of it being unified at these elections,” Serwer says.

Will Sadr float his own slate of candidates?

He might, experts say, or possibly join with Chalabi to present a slate in opposition to the establishment Shiites. “Sadr’s keeping many options open,” Katzman says. “He’s flirting with the idea of joining politics with Chalabi and flirting with a more radical Shiite slate” that would be strongly nationalist, independent, and make opposition to the United States as its primary position. If Sadr runs candidates under his party banner “he can win a lot of seats and have the option to exert power both within and without the political system,” Katzman says.

Is there a chance Sadr could change his mind again about entering politics?

Experts say yes. Sadr has been a wily political player in the last year, and has been very successful at achieving his goals. “He’s very, very shrewd,” Katzman says. “He’s been much cleverer than people think.” Whether or not Sadr runs, however, Serwer says the current political maneuvering is an improvement on Iraq’s past. “Fundamentally, it’s good,” he says. “We’re seeing a transition from power coming from the barrel of a gun to power coming from ballots.”

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