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Iraq's Kurds could lose some of their influence to anti-American Sadr movement

By Leila Fadel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 24, 2010; A10

BAGHDAD -- The Kurds, the strongest U.S. ally in Iraq and a leading political kingmaker, appear likely to lose some of their influence to a stridently anti-American group that did surprisingly well in this month's parliamentary elections.

Fiery cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's movement -- whose militiamen have battled the Americans and were blamed for some of the worst sectarian violence of recent years -- is positioned to take a pivotal role in the next parliament. The Shiite Muslim group, which had largely been driven underground by U.S. and Iraqi forces, has made a remarkable comeback by developing a sophisticated political organization in addition to its armed wing.

Meanwhile, the staunchly pro-American Kurdistan Alliance has been weakened by a fracturing of the Kurdish electorate, according to a preliminary count of Iraq's March 7 vote. Although the Kurds had been the most important kingmaker in past governments, they probably will share that role with the Sadrists as the two leading vote-getters -- Ayad Allawi's secular Iraqiya bloc and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's State of Law group -- struggle to build a coalition.

"The Sadrists had political and military power that surpassed that of the government, but they misused it and ended up in jails and in exile," said political analyst Ibrahim al-Sumaidaie. "Now, they have mastered their political power. They will find that the political game will give them more power and a wider role than their guns."

In 2006, the Sadrists played a part in choosing Maliki, a Shiite, as prime minister. Two years later, Maliki relented to U.S. pressure and deployed the Iraqi military to target the Sadrist militia, the Mahdi Army, in a successful offensive. But instead of disappearing, the Sadrists regrouped, shifting their focus from armed struggle to political strategizing.

In advance of this year's elections, the Sadrists were among the only blocs in Iraq to educate voters about the nation's complex electoral system. Although they nominated only 52 candidates out of the more than 6,000 who ran nationwide, they were shrewd in deciding which seats to target. As a result, they are expected to win as many as 40 seats in the next parliament, with their Shiite allies probably taking just over 20. There are 325 seats in the new parliament.

As of Monday, 95 percent of the votes had been counted, with the remaining results due on Friday.

The Sadrists' electoral success comes as the strength of the Kurdish coalition -- a bedrock of U.S. support -- has been thrown into doubt. The two main Kurdish parties face an internal challenge from a breakaway movement called Goran, or Change, which is expected to win eight to 10 seats. The Kurdistan Alliance, made up of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdish Democratic Party, also lost seats in the ethnically mixed provinces of Diyala and Nineveh, where Sunni Arabs, whose participation was hampered by violence in the December 2005 parliamentary elections, turned out to vote in large numbers this time around.

The alliance is expected to hold about 42 seats in the new parliament. In the last parliament, which had 275 members, it had 50 seats and was boosted by eight legislators from other Kurdish parties. Goran is considered a wild card, because no one knows whether its legislators will ultimately side with the alliance.

"The role of the Kurds depends to a large degree on what the Goran is going to do," said Sumaidaie, the analyst. "If Goran goes on a collision course with the Kurdistan Alliance . . . the power of the Kurds will be diminished."

The contest for the largest number of seats in Iraq's next parliament is now between the groups headed by Allawi and Maliki, which are locked in a neck-and-neck race. Both are expected to court the Kurds and the Sadrists to secure the majority needed to form a government.

"They are going to try to woo both blocs," said Tanya Gilly, a Kurdish legislator. "Anybody who is going to get those two is going to be able to form the government. Our numbers have decreased, but at the same time, the presence of any of these alliances gives the government more legitimacy."

On Friday, Hakim al-Zamili, a Sadrist candidate for parliament, sat in the front row of an outdoor prayer service in Baghdad and was besieged by admirers who rushed to hug him and kiss his ring. Unlike many Iraqi politicians, Sadrist candidates tend to live and pray in the communities they plan to serve.

"Everyone is scared of the Sadr trend now," said Zamili, a top vote-getter in Baghdad who is poised to win a seat. Zamili, a former deputy minister of health, was detained by the United States for more than a year. He was accused of running a militia through the ministry and was seen as a significant player in the sectarian warfare that nearly crippled the country. He says he was defending the ministry from "terrorists."

The Sadrists have not abandoned their violent tactics and continue to promote themselves as forcefully resisting the U.S. occupation. The leader of the movement, Sadr, has been living in Iran for about three years but retains his influence because of the sway he holds with the Shiite poor.

At the Friday service, men passed out DVDs carrying a message from Sadr promising to avenge U.S. arrests of the group's members. After the message, the recording showed a series of attacks by the Mahdi Army against U.S. military vehicles and bases dating from 2009 and earlier this year.

"Do not be weak. You are in our hearts and in our mind," the message from Sadr said, addressing the detainees. "We will not forget you as long as we are living."

Special correspondents K.I. Ibrahim, Aziz Alwan and Jinan Hussein contributed to this report.

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