NEW YORK — 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.
Sadr’s influence swelled because no single faction was able to dominate the balloting. Allawi’s Iraqiya list won the largest share with 91 seats, followed by Maliki’s State of Law coalition with 89 and the Shiite-led Iraqi National Alliance (INA) with 70 seats. (Sadr’s movement won 40 seats, the largest share within the INA.) In early June, Maliki formalized his post-election merger with the INA, giving the two groups 159 seats in the 325-seat legislature.
Maliki is trying to outmaneuver 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 likely exclude the Sunnis. This threatens to once again unleash the sectarian warfare that shattered Iraq from 2005 to 2007.
But so far, Sadr and his supporters are reluctant to support Maliki’s reappointment as prime minister. They hold a grudge against Maliki for launching a crackdown by the Iraqi army in 2008 which devastated Sadr’s militia. In a recent interview with Al-Jazeera, 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, Sadr’s followers held an unofficial referendum to help decide whom the movement should back as prime minister. Maliki came out fourth, with a mere 10 percent of the vote, followed by Allawi with nine percent. The top vote getters in the straw poll were Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a former prime minister, and Jaafar Baqer al-Sadr, scion of a distinguished clerical family who is also Muqtada’s distant cousin. The exercise was likely intended to give Sadr and his advisers ammunition to veto both Maliki and Allawi for the premiership and to support a compromise candidate from the Shiite factions.
Sadr represents the triumph of a defiant brand of Shiism in Iraq. 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 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, 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. Sadr’s father, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, was one of the pre-eminent scholars of the Shiite world. Unlike Sistani, the elder Sadr argued that clerics should be involved in social and political matters. His son inherited some of this rivalry with the senior theologians in Najaf.
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 U.S. occupation and American plans to install an interim government made up mainly of exiled Iraqi politicians like Ahmad Chalabi and Allawi.
Sadr’s followers seized control of hospitals, schools and mosques in parts of Baghdad, Najaf and Karbala. In the absence of a central government, they set up social service networks, and posters of Sadr and his assassinated father lined the walls of Shiite neighborhoods. 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 Shiites from Baghdad’s slums and southern Iraq.
Since he emerged as the fiercest Shiite critic of the U.S. occupation, Sadr has been remarkably adept at using religious symbols to position himself as heir to a long line of Shiite martyrs. By doing so, he has tapped into a central tenet of Shiism: dying in defense of one’s beliefs, as the sect’s founders did in the seventh century. During months of traveling around Iraq in 2003 and 2004, I saw the same poster hanging in homes and on walls of Shiite neighborhoods: Muqtada 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 Shiism’s founding figure, Imam Ali, looms over father and son.
In reality, Muqtada 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 Muqtada has used his father’s martyrdom to build support among Iraqi Shiites. And it helps explain why young Iraqis were willing to die for him, even as senior clerics urged them to avoid confronting U.S. 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 Sadr is on his way to becoming an even more formidable kingmaker in Iraq.
Mohamad Bazzi is a journalism professor at New York University and an adjunct senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.