By Leila Fadel and Aziz Alwan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, April 3, 2010; A06
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.
The organization originally was seen as one of the few Shiite movements independent of Iran because it was founded in Iraq under Saddam Hussein's brutal government. Hussein is thought to have ordered the slaying of Sadr's father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, a revered religious leader who spoke for the masses of the Shiite poor.
Sadrists had stood staunchly against foreign intervention in Iraq, by either the United States or Iran. With Moqtada al-Sadr studying in neighboring Iran, it is unclear how much influence the country has on the group. Iran is said to have supplied funding and weapons for the militant wing.
Although some political parties here with ties to Iran fared poorly in last month's election, Iran has wide influence in Iraq. Iraqi politicians view the country as an important, if meddling, neighbor that could help or hurt their country's future stability.
The Sadr party is intent on appearing distant from Iran, despite Sadr's presence there.
"The Iraqi government should form by the hands of the Iraqi people themselves," Araji said. "In general, we reject the interference of any country in our affairs."
Also Friday, in a worrying sign of the country's tenuous security, 23 prisoners broke out of a central prison in the north. Officials said all the men were members of al-Qaeda. At least four were high-level members of the Islamic State of Iraq, an al-Qaeda front organization that has promised to undermine the political process and target political parties.
Officials said the men dug a hole under the wall that surrounded the prison. The guards responsible for the prison's security were arrested, officials said.
Alwan is a special correspondent. Special correspondents Dalya Hassan and Jinan Hussein contributed to this report.