Dispatch

The King of Iraq

The King of Iraq

It would be hard to imagine a more unlikely meeting. Late in July, the tempestuous Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr traveled to Damascus from Iran, where he’s been living in exile for the past three years. The trip looked at first to be a routine photo-op for Sadr and Syrian President Bashar Assad. That is, until Sadr met with Ayad Allawi, a top contender for the prime minister post in Iraq and one of the cleric’s sworn enemies. Their mutual enmity dates back to a showdown in the holy city of Najaf in the summer of 2004. Sadr’s Mahdi Army fighters had taken over the city and were using the Imam Ali shrine, one of the holiest sites for Shiites, as a base of operations. Allawi, who was interim prime minister at the time, gave American and Iraqi troops the green light to take them out, killing dozens of Mahdi militiamen in the process.

So it was no small thing for the two to meet in person. And they didn’t just talk; they were laughing and hamming it up as if they were the best of friends. The photos and video footage from that meeting are some of the only public examples of Sadr smiling (the more common profile is a scowling Sadr, wrapped in a white martyr’s shroud, pounding a pulpit). Sadr had good reason to be happy: He now holds the fate of his one-time enemy in his hands.

Sadr — feared by some, reviled by others and revered by a broad swath of Iraq’s urban poor — is now a kingmaker in Iraqi politics. It’s a role that Sadr, the scion of a prominent clerical family, has been building toward since 2003. Immediately after the U.S. invasion, thousands of his supporters packed the dusty streets of Baghdad’s Saddam City neighborhood (later renamed Sadr City) for Friday prayers week after week. Sadr rallied their ranks around his parliamentary list in the 2005 elections, making a strong showing, and then used his political clout to help push Nouri al-Maliki into the prime minister slot in 2006. But the friendship didn’t last: Sadr bitterly split from Maliki when the latter allowed American troops to attack his militia members. Depending on whom you ask, Sadr either sensed he was next to be targeted and fled to Iran or was convinced of that fact by Iranian officials, who urged Sadr to leave for his own safety. Now, as U.S. troops withdraw and negotiations are underway in Baghdad to form a new government, Sadr may be planning his return. If he does, he will no doubt face jubilant crowds once again.

Sadr’s political comeback was the result of careful and deliberate planning. More than a year before the elections in March, Sadr and his top aides set up an election strategy committee they dubbed the "machine." The goal was to game the electoral system as best as they could. A team of seven pored over the election law, dissected district maps, and built an extensive database of voters in every province. In the end, Sadr’s Free Movement party won 39 seats in parliament, giving his followers a decisive vote within the National Iraqi Alliance, the dominant Shiite bloc of which they are part. And that’s exactly why Allawi shuttled to Damascus for the meeting: He needs Sadr if he hopes to become prime minister.

It would be easy to write off Sadr’s electoral success as a fluke. But the reality is that the cleric’s brand of religious nationalism, coupled with his carefully cultivated image as the defender of the Shiite community, has struck a deep chord with tens of thousands of Iraqis. Moreover, he’s got the one thing that his rivals don’t: "street cred." Sadr can, rightfully, claim that his movement is one of the few on the Iraqi political scene that’s homegrown. Compare this to the Sadrists’ top rivals in the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI). For years, they’ve tried to fight the image that they were brought in on American tanks and are beholden to both Washington and Tehran,  even changing their name because the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq sounded too Iranian. They tried appropriating the image of Iraq’s most senior cleric, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, to woo more supporters (there are still posters up around Baghdad showing the late ISCI leaders Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer Hakim and Abdul Aziz Hakim beside Sistani). Nothing worked. ISCI got wiped out at the polls in March and also had a pretty dismal showing during provincial elections last year.

The Sadrists, by contrast, aren’t going anywhere — which puts Washington, among others, in a bind. Sadr’s supporters are more than just a political party. The cleric is clearly following the Hezbollah model, creating a populist political movement backed by a battle-hardened militia. The language Sadr uses when discussing the U.S. presence in Iraq — resistance, occupation, martyrdom — could easily have been taken from a speech by Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah. All this has discouraged U.S. officials from holding talks with Sadr — something they’ve never done since 2003. It’s not exactly like Sadr has gone out of his way to open up a dialogue, either. In fact, Sadr and many of his top aides have made it clear that the Mahdi Army won’t disarm as long as there are American troops on Iraqi soil.

So what does Sadr want? One issue that has come up again and again in the negotiations to form the government is detainees. In a recent interview with Al Jazeera, Sadr estimated that there are as many as 2,000 detainees linked to his movement, most swept up in U.S. operations in 2007 and 2008, whom he would like to see released. The cleric has claimed that he doesn’t want to mix the issue of detainees with the negotiations to form the government, but representatives from major political blocs who have held talks with the Sadrists dispute that claim, noting that Sadr has blasted Maliki for holding the prisoners and withheld his support. No doubt whichever candidate Sadr ultimately backs for the premiership will have to make major concessions on the detainees. He may also have to promise to lay off the Mahdi Army.

But the detainees are only a short-term bargaining chip. What Sadr is after is power itself — and if his past record is any indication, he won’t be shy about using it. There are any number of issues he could block or help push through parliament. Sadr has previously butted heads with Kurdish groups about the final status of Kirkuk, an oil-rich city that the Kurds claim as their capital. He is a proponent of putting oil revenues under central government control, a position at odds with the Kurds as well as some rival Shiite groups, such as ISCI. Women’s rights groups have already voiced strong concerns that the Sadrists could block their attempts to reform laws that cover property ownership, divorce, and child custody. Some even fear that Mahdi fighters will again target women’s rights activists, as they did in Basra in 2007 and 2008.

Sadr’s ambitions don’t cover Iraq’s domestic agenda alone. His high-profile trips to Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere indicate that he wants to be seen as a prominent regional player. He would like to promote his Mahdi Army as a member of the so-called "axis of resistance" made up by Hezbollah and Hamas, both of which have made their names by confronting the United States and Israel.

For now, Sadr is undoubtedly pleased by his opportunity to have a key vote in who becomes the next prime minister. And it’s hard to miss the irony from a man who has built his image on being among the people. He’s not casting that vote from Baghdad, where he could rally millions of supporters, but from a comfortable perch hundreds of miles away in neighboring Iran.