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Savvy Sadrists

Alice Fordham
It was Iraqiya, the party that trumpeted its secularism, that got the most seats in the Iraqi elections, but as the two Shia blocs move closer toward a giant alliance, the biggest winner may yet be the Shia…
21.04.2010  |  Baghdad

Officials from both the State of Law bloc led by incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, and from the more religious, more sectarian Iraqi National Alliance, have said that the two groups are now close to forming a coalition.

Western diplomats are watching this development anxiously as the largest bloc in the INA, with 39 seats, is the Sadrist Stream, led by the Shia cleric Moqtada al Sadr, currently studying in Iran.

They have the most leverage in the INA and spokesman Salah al Obeidi said this week that negotiations are only stalling on who the new Prime Minister should be. The Sadrists have no love for Maliki, and may now have the power to depose him.

The anti-Western Sadrist movement's Mahdi Army militia terrified Iraq during sectarian fighting, battling national and Coalition forces and brutally enforcing a conservative version of Islam. The Sadr movement still has an active militia, defines itself as a Shia religious movement, opposes American forces and international oil deals - and is becoming the smartest political force in Iraq.

Its political power became apparent during the parliamentary elections, when the group, unlike more secular, pro-West parties, used sophisticated tactics.

They conducted informal primaries to establish popular candidates, and told neighbourhoods whom to vote for, which exploited the list system and won them 39 (possibly rising to 40) of 325 seats, making them the biggest player in the Shia-led Iraqi National Alliance (INA) and lending them likely kingmaker status as coalitions are formed.

Party strategists confirmed that since a low-profile meeting of the leadership, including Hojatoleslam al-Sadr himself, in Turkey last year, the party's focus has switched to political advancement. There is a unit devoted to training in political strategy, with Iraqi teachers who have studied politics abroad - even in America. The newly-elected MPs were in Najaf for training last week.

Earlier this month, the party orchestrated a huge informal poll to determine whom the group should back as Prime Minister as it chooses a coalition. According to the party, 1.4 million people voted across Iraq, although the focus was in Sadr City, the Baghdad suburb that is their bedrock of support.

The people backed neither leading candidate - incumbent Nouri al-Maliki nor secular challenger Ayad Allawi - but Ibrahim Jaafari, a far less secular figure and INA member.

“Jaafari is unlikely to be Prime Minister, but the poll bolstered the party's credentials as a popular movement and will provide ammunition for the party to reject Allawi and Maliki as leaders, both of whom led governments which battled the Mahdi Army,” said Wamidh Nadhmi, an Iraqi political analyst.

The party has also shown political savvy in its regional activities. After the election, representatives including spokesman Saleh al-Obeidi made trips to Syria, visiting premier Bashar al-Asad, and to meet officials in Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

Although Hojatoleslam al-Sadr is studying in Iran, the party is nationalistic, and a visit to Iran's regional rival of Saudi rebuts allegations of Iranian influence.

The Mahdi Army has now officially become a volunteer community work organisation known as the Mumahedoon, but party official Sheikh Mazen al-Saidi said that a military wing still exists, known as the "Promised Day", which trains at secret camps, "probably within Iraq".

The memories of sectarian violence are still fresh in Iraq and this week more than 70 people died in Baghdad in bombs which were claimed in part by an al-Qaeda umbrella group. In this context, an anti-occupation, armed Shia group taking a bigger role in parliament is viewed with concern by Western diplomats and the US Army.

"The Sadrists is a phenomenon that needs to be watched," said US ambassador to Iraq Christopher Hill. "It's based on some models that are not very attractive in other countries," although he added, "I think what it fundamentally is is a party that tries to respond to the economic circumstances of people more than it does the religious.

Meanwhile, the process of ratifying the government and forming coalitions continues to move very slowly. Nouri al-Maliki's State of Law coalition scored a triumph this week when it was partially successful in its appeal for a total recount of all votes. The votes across Baghdad will be manually recounted - amid concerns raised by Iraqiya that Maliki could have pressured the courts and could manipulate the recount.

There are concerns that these investigations could delay government formation further, leaving a political vacuum and possibly affecting security.

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