Supporters of Shiite cleric Sadr could pose problems for Maliki

By Leila Fadel and Aziz Alwan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, April 3, 2010

BAGHDAD -- Followers of fiery anti-U.S. cleric Moqtada al-Sadr voted Friday to determine whom they would back to be Iraq's next prime minister, flexing their newfound political muscle and potentially causing problems for incumbent Nouri al-Maliki.

Sadr is emerging as a dominant player in deciding how Iraq's next government will be formed. His followers waged tough military battles with U.S. forces and were eventually driven underground. They have since emerged as an astute political organization, winning at least 39 seats in the new parliament.

The group prides itself on resisting the U.S. presence here. Sadr, who is studying in Iran to be a grand ayatollah, is being courted by Iraqi politicians anxious for his support.

"Those who say the Sadr trend is weak or marginalized should re-account and rethink this matter," said Sheik Hazem al-Araji, a close aide to Sadr.

A representative of Maliki's State of Law bloc met this month with Sadr. Maliki, who went after Sadr's Shiite militia in the southern port city of Basra and parts of Baghdad, is seen by Sadrists as a traitor.

"The brothers in the State of Law are trying to melt the ice," said Amir al-Kinani, the head of Sadr's political bloc. "Sayed Moqtada let them return disappointed."

Sadrists may use the informal referendum, which continues Saturday, as an excuse not to back Maliki, who endured a blow this week when another Shiite party appeared to back former prime minister Ayad Allawi's Iraqiya bloc.

"The Iraqiya list received many votes. We shall not participate in a government that doesn't have them," the head of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, Amar al-Hakim, said on the party's Web site. The group, seen as backed by Iran, ran in the same Shiite coalition as the Sadrists for the elections.

Maliki, whose bloc won 89 seats, and Allawi, whose alliance won 91, are trying to build coalitions large enough to form the next government. Other political groups have requested meetings with the young cleric, Sadrist officials said.

Thousands of Shiites in the capital and southern provinces went Friday to makeshift polling centers set up in colorful tents. There were no rules or observers. Young children, women and men marked the blue ballots, and some even voted more than once. They chose from five candidates, including Allawi and Maliki, or could write in another choice. The ballots were emblazoned with the words: "The choice of the people is our choice."

Whoever comes out on top is the person the group will back for prime minister.

The Sadrists are emerging from a difficult period. The group had lost its way when Sadr's militia, once revered as the protectors of Shiites from Sunni insurgents, grew out of control and was blamed for some of the worst sectarian violence in Iraq.

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