Sadr breaks the deadlock

Sadr breaks the deadlock

Nouri al-Maliki appears close to a deal that will put Iraq’s Shi’ia parties in power. After seven months of political wrangling, it would be tempting to believe that any government formed by Iraq’s squabbling political leaders is progress. It is not.

The political slate that garnered the most seats in the parliamentary elections, Ayad Allawi’s non-sectarian bloc, ought to have had the first shot at forming a government. Prime Minister Maliki’s manipulations of electoral commission findings and superseding of judicial decisions accrued that advantage instead to his second-place finish.

Even with the advantages of incumbency in a system newly empowered and without strong legal constraints, Maliki has been unable to cobble together a coalition. Other parties fear a "soft coup" of Maliki consolidating power and have been unwilling to join a government with him as prime minister.

Which is where the Obama administration’s inattention to Iraq, accelerated drawdown of U.S. troops, and appointment of Christopher Hill — an ambassador without expertise on Iraq — comes in. These factors combined to reduce U.S. influence at this crucial juncture of Iraq’s democratization. U.S. military leaders backed up the administration for far too long, claiming the drawdown would have no effect on Iraq’s political landscape. The spike in violence and the withering of political compromise in Iraq these seven months are the result of our declining engagement and the Iraqis’ declining confidence in us.

Into this void has now stepped Moqtada al-Sadr, dilettante son of a revered Shi’ia cleric and leader of sustained insurgent activity against U.S. forces. Since the surge pulled the rug out from under his legitimacy through violence approach, he has been in Iran burnishing his religious credentials, garnering support from the Iranian government, and mobilizing his political forces.

This week, Moqtada al-Sadr achieved what the U.S. government has been unable to do these past seven months: persuade Prime Minister Maliki to give a significant role in governing to the Allawi block. Sadr committed his Parliamentary seats in support of Maliki, provided the prime minister create a substantive role for Allawi, most likely expanding the ceremonial role of president. And Sadr is the only young man among Iraq’s political leaders — he can afford to play the long game, taking the mantle of national conciliator now to position himself as Iraq’s leader.

Vice President Biden, the administration’s point man on Iraq, is burning up phone lines trying to create the façade of American influence. But the fact remains that the administration could not achieve this and the political faction most invidious to our goals has delivered it.

Ambassador Jim Jeffrey (an adroit hand now in Baghdad) merely stated the obvious, acknowledging that a government including Sadr would render difficult a long-term strategic relationship with the United States. It will also marginalize the Kurds, possibly complicating the likeliest tinderbox of sectarian violence. Iran and Syria welcomed the move. This is what comes from too little effort by the Obama administration to securing the gains achieved by blood and treasure in Iraq.