Sadr Casts a Shadow Over Bush-Maliki Meeting

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 30, 2006

BAGHDAD, Nov. 29 -- When President Bush meets Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Amman, Jordan, on Thursday, it will be clear that the real power in Iraq rests with radical cleric and militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr.

In one swift maneuver Wednesday, Sadr cast a shadow over the diplomacy in Amman and issued a reminder of his growing influence in Iraq when a bloc of his party's lawmakers and cabinet members suspended their participation in the government to protest Maliki's decision to meet with Bush in Jordan.

The move raises concerns about the ability of Maliki and Iraq's fragile unity government -- beset by political paralysis, feuding rivalries and corruption -- to survive. If Sadr decides to prolong his departure from government, it could lead to deeper crisis in a nation already divided by sectarian strife.

Sadr is bringing pressure to bear on Maliki to not give in to demands by the United States on security matters. They include the U.S. drive to dismantle Iraq's Shiite militias, of which Sadr runs the largest and most violent, the Mahdi Army.

Shiite leaders, including Sadr and Maliki, want the United States to cede more operational control of Iraq's security forces. At the same time, Sadr appears to be sending a clear message to Washington, analysts and Iraqi politicians say, as tensions are growing between Sadr and U.S. military forces, which routinely stage raids inside his Baghdad stronghold of Sadr City.

"It was a way to make both Maliki and Washington understand that he holds a lot of cards," Vali Nasr, an expert on Shiite politics, said of the walkout from parliament.

Sadr's popularity and confidence are rising. The latest boost came last week, in the aftermath of a barrage of car bombs, mortars and missiles that battered the Shiite slum of Sadr City. More than 200 were killed in the attacks, the single deadliest assault against Iraqis since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. A day after those attacks, powerful politicians allied with Sadr vowed to pull out of the government if Maliki met with Bush.

On Wednesday, they kept their promise. In a statement, the 30 lawmakers and five cabinet ministers loyal to Sadr launched the boycott. It is not clear what this will mean for the future of Iraq's government and the country.

Nasar al-Rubaie, president of Sadr's bloc in parliament, cautioned that its action did not mean it was pulling out of the government. "The suspension does not mean our withdrawal from the political process," Rubaie said.

He added that the Sadr allies would discuss in coming days how long they would stay out. "It's an indefinite suspension," he said.

Hasan Suneid, an Islamic Dawa party parliament member and close aide to Maliki, played down the significance of the Sadr bloc members' action, describing it as "a sort of protest."

"They need to show their political attitude against the meeting of Maliki and Bush," Suneid said. "The suspension is very normal for any parliament member, and it could last for three or four days."

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