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Sadrists rise may shake Iraq power balance

Baghdad, March 22, 2010

Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has emerged as potential kingmaker in Iraq's new government, threatening to alter the country's political landscape.

Initial results from the March 7 parliamentary vote show the Iraqi national alliance, a mainly shi’ite coalition in which the Sadrists are a main faction, in third place nationwide.

But the Sadrists have captured so far some 30 percent of the total votes of the INA, which is led by a hitherto politically powerful group, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (ISCI), founded in exile in neighbouring Iran.

The Sadrists' rise challenges Shiite rivals and allies alike.

'The Sadrists have shown again that they should never be counted out. Their electoral strength signals an ongoing but very gradual shift away from rule by former exiles,' said Joost Hiltermann, an analyst with the international crisis group.

The Sadrists estimate they could grab from 38 to 40 seats in parliament, out of some 72-73 seats for the INA. Analyst Reidar Visser estimated ISCI would win 15 to 17 seats, about half of what they got in a 2005 parliamentary election.

'The main implication of the Sadrists re-emergence is that it changes the internal balance of power among the shi’ite Islamists,' Visser, of Historiae.Org, said.

'By comparison, ISCI and the Badr group, which are supported by Iran and were given many important positions by the US. Following 2003, are looking weaker and weaker and could end up being irrelevant for the process of government formation.'

The Sadrists have managed to capitalise on the gradual erosion of ISCI's clout created by a leadership vacuum after the death of the influential Iranian-backed Shiite cleric Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim last year.

The success of the Sadrists highlights weakening support for ISCI as well as the group's strides as a political organisation, with a much better organised campaign this year than 2009 provincial election.

'ISCI has not managed to regroup (after hakim's death) and come up with candidates that appeal to Iraqi voters,' said Visser.

The strong showing of the Sadrists in the election, where they rode a nationalist message for change, could prove to be a formidable challenge for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who eyes a second term as premier.

Maliki, the Sadrists and ISCI were once allies in parliament's largest bloc. But in 2008, Maliki launched a crackdown on Sadr's Mehdi army militia, which once controlled parts of southern Iraq and Baghdad.

'Our presence will be strong in the new parliament and our effect on the formation of the new government will be obvious,' said Hakim al-Zamili, a candidate and member of Sadr's bloc.

Support in the slums

The Sadrist movement draws its support mostly from the shi'ite poor in the oil-producing south and deprived urban areas such as Baghdad’s Sadr City slum, named after the revered grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, Moqtada's father, who was killed in 1999 for defying Saddam Hussein.

'The Sadrists address a stable base of the poor and the impoverished who are connected with a sacred link to the Sadr family, this was a main reason for their strong showing in the election,' said Iraqi political analyst Ibrahim al-Sumaidaie.

A day ahead of the march 7 election, Moqtada al-Sadr, whose fiery anti-American message mobilised millions of poor shi'ites after the 2003 invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein, urged Iraqis to take part in the vote to help pave the way for Iraq's 'liberation' from US forces.

The enigmatic Sadr, the scion of a revered clerical family, faded from the political scene since he began religious studies in Iran more than two years ago.

Embracing the political process, rather than armed struggle, the Sadrists' political wing toned down the religious rhetoric, cast itself as less sectarian and tailored its message to the voters' basic needs -- security, jobs and services.

ISCI and the Sadrists are longtime foes that united for the election. Both have lost ground since holding sway over shi'ite voters only a few years ago, as Iraqis grew tired of sectarian tensions and bloodshed unleashed by the US invasion.

Coalition building

Maliki's state of law coalition and the Iraqiya list of shi'ite secularist Iyad Allawi are in a neck-and-neck election race with no one expected to get an outright majority. Both men will be forced to seek political alliances to form a government.

A union between Maliki and Allawi is unlikely, which makes it even more important that each camp tries to woo other winning coalitions such as the INA and the Kurds.

Allawi is already in talks with the Kurds, ISCI and the Sadrists. Even before full results are out, observers say INA may splinter if ISCI backs Maliki.

'ISCI could easily cut a deal with either Maliki or Allawi.

The Sadrists on the other hand feel a little different,' a western diplomat said.

A less likely, but possible scenario would see state of law dump Maliki and offer another candidate for the premiership in a bid to win the Sadrists' support, a senior politician in Maliki's Dawa party said.

'The Sadrists are not ready to negotiate with us. Maybe a way to solve this would be to change our candidate for the prime minister post. But honestly we don't have other names.' – Reuters




Tags: Iraq | Baghdad | Election | Maliki | Shi’ite | Moqtada al-Sadr | Sadrist | Allawi |

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