Iraq's Al-Sadr Harbors Ambitious Plans

The Associated Press
Tuesday, May 22, 2007; 2:59 PM

BAGHDAD -- From hiding, possibly in Iran, U.S. nemesis and radical anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is believed to be honing plans to sweep into the power vacuum made all the more intense by news that his chief Shiite rival has lung cancer. And he's betting the U.S. won't keep its troops in Iraq much longer.

Al-Sadr aides and loyal lawmakers have told The Associated Press the cleric's ambitions mean he will avoid taking on the Americans militarily as he did in 2004, when his Mahdi Army militia fought U.S. forces to a standstill.

Instead, the 33-year-old cleric plans to keep up the drumbeat of anti-American rhetoric, consolidate political gains in Baghdad and the mainly Shiite south, and quietly foster even closer ties with neighboring Iran and its Shiite theocracy.

The strategy is based in part on al-Sadr's belief that Washington will soon start pulling out troops or draw them down significantly, leaving behind a huge hole in Iraq's security and political power structure, al-Sadr's associates said.

Iraqi Defense Minister Abdul-Qader al-Obeidi told reporters Monday that Iraq's military is drawing up plans in case U.S.-led forces leave the country quickly.

"The army plans on the basis of a worst-case scenario so as not to allow any security vacuum," al-Obeidi said. "There are meetings with political leaders on how we can deal with a sudden pullout."

It was unclear whether al-Obeidi was referring to routine contingency planning, or if his remarks reflected a new realization among Iraqi leaders that the days of American support may be numbered.

Al-Sadr also believes, his associates said, that Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government may not last much longer, given its failure to improve security, services and the economy. A government collapse is certain to be followed by a political realignment in which the Sadrist movement stands a good chance of emerging as the main player. Al-Sadr's loyalists have 30 of parliament's 275 seats.

The six lawmakers and aides spoke to the AP in separate interviews over the past week. Several agreed to speak of the movement's future only on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss strategy with outsiders. They stuck to broad outlines, declining to be drawn into specifics.

"We gave the government a historic opportunity, but al-Maliki did not use it and that's why we are preparing for a state led by the Sadrist movement," said an al-Sadr political aide who is among those who spoke on condition of anonymity. "An Islamic state led by the Sadrists is our future," he said.

The impact of such a plan _ if implemented _ would be far reaching.

An Iraq with ultra-radical Sadrist Shiites holding dominant power would seek to curb U.S. influence and bolster the influence of clergy-ruled Iran throughout Iraq and possibly outside its borders in the Sunni Arab heartlands of Saudi Arabia, Syria and Jordan.

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