Wild Card in Iraq’s Political Life
|January 20, 2011||Filled under All Dinar Trade Articles|
The return to Iraq of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr has both strengthened the Shiite-Kurdish coalition established by Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and put it on notice.
Sadr’s presence in Iraq makes the coalition a fait accompli. As long as he was outside the country, it appeared to be a slender construct cobbled together by Iran under pressure of the December 25 deadline. But Sadr made it quite clear in his first address to his followers that to ensure his support, the government would have to deliver electricity, water, jobs and security to Iraqis and insist that the last US soldier must leave Iraq by the end of the year.
Maliki – who has ignored pleas from the US to carry out various reforms – is likely to listen to Sadr.He showed he meant business by withdrawing his ministers from Maliki’s first Cabinet, in 2007, because the premier would not demand from the US a timeline for troop withdrawal. Sadr could very well stage another pullout if Maliki tries to extend the mandate of US forces.
Sadr’s faction – with 40 seats in the 325-member national assembly – holds eight of 43 posts in the new government, but his followers are not satisfied with the jobs allocated by Maliki.They were given labour, water resources, tourism and antiquities, housing, construction, and public works and planning, as well as the position of minister without portfolio. The Sadrists were also granted senior posts in southern provinces, where the movement remains strong. As kingmakers, they did expect a senior Cabinet post, such as defence, interior, security or finance.
Maliki has retained the first three, while finance has gone to Iraqiya, the party of Maliki’s chief rival Iyad Allawi.Iraqiya has, in fact, been treated as a key partner by being given finance, the speakership of parliament and other key positions.
Sadr, apparently, does not expect to gain any of the security ministries. On the vexing issue of allocation of Cabinet seats, the Sadrists have no one to blame but themselves. First, few Iraqis outside the Sadrist movement would like to see one of its number in any of the security ministries. The undisciplined Sadrist Mehdi Army militia was responsible for some of the most vicious bloodletting, as well as widespread kidnapping and sectarian cleansing during the dark days of 2006-07, when more than 4,000 Iraqis were being slaughtered every month. While the Mehdi Army did battle with US forces in both 2004 and 2007, the Sadrists’ struggle against the occupation did not erase what their men did in the wake of the destruction by Al Qaeda of a Shiite shrine in Samarra in February 2006.
Second, Sadrist ministers in Maliki’s previous government did not successfully carry out their work.They were just as corrupt and inept as ministers from other parties, although the Sadrists were meant to exemplify a revolutionary populist movement seeking to uplift the poorest of the poor.Finally, the Sadrists have alienated many Sunnis, secularists and moderate Shiites by trying to impose strict social codes on areas under their control and elsewhere.
Whatever the Sadrists do or don’t do, Maliki is stuck with them for the present and, perhaps, for the life of his government. Sadr, a firebrand and wild card in his original incarnation, has, according to aides and observers, mellowed during his four years in Iran where he is said to have enhanced his clerical credentials by studying with leading Shiite theologians, including some close to Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei.
The Iranians clearly persuaded him against his will to back Maliki, whom he holds responsible for the 2008 offensive against the Mehdi Army that drove it off the streets and led to the arrest of hundreds of its fighters.
As the price of his support, Sadr secured the release of many of his men from prison and the lifting of an arrest warrant for him, for the April 2003 murder by his followers of a rival Shiite cleric when he returned to Najaf from London. However, Sadr is almost certain, ultimately, to go his own way. This means he remains a wild card if not a firebrand.
While he may have made a tactical decision to support Maliki, Iran’s candidate for premier, Sadr does not depend on Tehran for political clout. Indeed, before taking refuge there in 2007, he called for Iran to stay out of Iraq’s political affairs. Sadr has a mass constituency among the poor who have not benefitted from the US occupation or Maliki’s first term in office. The Sadrists did well in the 2009 local elections, as well as in the 2010 parliamentary poll.
Sadr belongs to the elite of the Iraqi Shiite hierarchy. He is the son of Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq Al Sadr, a leading Shiite opponent of secular Baath party rule who led a revolt against the government in the Sadr City neighbourhood following the 1991 US war on Iraq. Muhammad Sadr was a cousin of Muhammad Baqir Al Sadr, a religious philosopher and founder of the Shiite religious Dawa party, created in 1958 as a counterweight to the secular nationalist and communist parties which were attracting mass Shiite membership.
Born in 1973, Muqtada Sadr was raised in Najaf under Baathist rule. Unlike Maliki and the other Shiite leaders who took charge of the country, he did not back the US invasion and occupation of Iraq or return to Baghdad “on the backs of US tanks”.
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