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Mar 31st, 2010


Shiite Cleric Adds to Iraq’s Disarray

Al-Sadr says hell ask backers to choose prime minister in referendum

Image: Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr
Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr talks to the media in his house in the holy Shiite city of Najaf, Iraq. (Photo credit: Alaa al-Marjani / AP)

By Rebecca Santana

March 31, 2010

BAGHDAD – Iraq’s political disarray deepened Wednesday when a potential kingmaker withheld his support from both big election winners and said he would ask his supporters to make the choice in a referendum.

Compounding the confusion, the incumbent prime minister refused to abandon his claim of fraud and his demand for a recount.

A coalition led by secular challenger Ayad Allawi, a Shiite who drew on deep Sunni support, eked out a two-seat lead over a mainly Shiite bloc led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in results released last Friday.

That gave a pivotal role to Muqtada al-Sadr, a Shiite and powerful anti-American cleric, without whose support it would be difficult for either Allawi or al-Maliki to form a coalition.

Key powerbroker

Al-Sadr’s hardline religious Shiite party, which won 39 of the 325 parliamentary seats in the March 7 election, has emerged as a key powerbroker whose support will prove crucial in determining which of the two leading blocs will form the next government.

While the Sadrists ostensibly belong to a Shiite religious bloc which has supported al-Maliki in the past, they have a deep-rooted animosity for him after he jailed thousands of their supporters and routed their militias in Basra and eastern Baghdad.

So far they have opposed joining any coalition in which al-Maliki would be the prime minister.

The referendum would give the Sadrist leadership an excuse not to support al-Maliki and openly back another candidate under the guise of following what the people want. …

The poll is also another sign of the young cleric’s growing political clout within this Shiite-dominated country, and adds to the Sadrists’ appeal among many Iraqis frustrated with a political system in which much of the negotiations and decision-making happens behind closed doors.

Results would be binding

A spokesman for al-Sadr, Salah al-Obeidi, said Wednesday that the referendum results would be binding on the party. The voting would be Friday and Saturday at al-Sadr offices, mosques and other sites across the country. Al-Sadr first called for the referendum Tuesday on his Web site.

People taking part in the poll would be allowed to choose from five candidates, including al-Maliki and Allawi and be allowed to write in someone of their choosing. Al-Obeidi said all Iraqis would be allowed to take part in the poll. …

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4/1/2010 Update

Iraq health official killed at his Baghdad home (AP, April 1, 2010) — Gunmen armed with silenced pistols fatally shot a Health Ministry official at his home in Baghdad in an apparent targeting of government employees, according to Iraqi police. The killing, one of a number of scattered attacks late Wednesday and into Thursday, comes amid growing concerns that the political uncertainty created by last month’s indecisive elections could lead to more violence as U.S. forces prepare to accelerate their withdrawal in the coming months. … Full story

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4/24/2010 Update

Will Attacks Reawaken Shiite Militia?

Anti-American cleric signals action to protect his people

By Lara Jakes

April 24, 2010

BAGHDAD — In offering to help Iraqi security forces to fight insurgents after a wave of deadly bombings in the capital, an anti-American Shiite cleric is sending a clear signal to the government: If you don’t protect us, we’ll protect ourselves.

Muqtada al-Sadr’s statement raised the fearful specter that he might be considering reactivating his once-powerful militia known as the Mahdi Army, a move that would play into al-Qaida in Iraq’s efforts to spark sectarian war.

Al-Sadr’s aides, however, insisted on Saturday that the cleric wasn’t threatening to send armed men onto the streets but was offering to help the government forces, who have been widely criticized for failing to protect the people as U.S. troops pull back.

The move comes as al-Sadr seeks to consolidate political power among Iraq’s Shiites after a strong showing by his followers in March 7 parliamentary elections. The cleric, a staunch opponent of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, has emerged as a power broker who could play a key role in deciding the country’s next leader.

Hours after bombs targeting Shiite mosques around Baghdad killed dozens of worshippers on Friday, al-Sadr urged his followers to remain calm and to do nothing to prompt U.S. forces to remain in Iraq any longer than their planned withdrawal deadline at the end of 2011.

But he added that he was prepared to provide “hundreds of believers” to join the Iraqi army and police to defend “their shrines, mosques, prayers, markets, houses and their towns.”

Image: Muqtada al-Sadr
Hadi Mizban / AP
Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in 2004.

He did not directly mention the Mahdi Army, which fought pitched battles with American forces and was blamed in some of the country’s worst sectarian bloodshed before it was routed by U.S.-Iraqi offensives in 2008.

Senior al-Sadr aide Hazim al-Araji said Saturday that the cleric wants to “integrate the believers, and here I mean Mahdi Army people, in the security forces through official ways.”

Sadrist lawmaker Hakim al-Zamili also emphasized that al-Sadr’s statement was not meant to supplant the Iraqi military.

“This cooperation does not mean that Mahdi army would go back with arms to the streets or participating in any violent act. It is only a call for cooperation with the army and police,” he said. …

Violence continued Saturday, as bombs hidden in three plastic bags exploded simultaneously in a billiard hall in a religiously mixed neighborhood in western Baghdad, killing six people and wounding more than 30, according to police and hospital officials.

Al-Sadr, who is widely believed to be based in Iran, has re-emerged as a prominent politician after announcing in 2008 that he was transforming his militia into a social welfare body with a few guerrilla cells to attack U.S. troops if the Pentagon refused to leave Iraq.

His bloc, which was part of a hard-line Shiite religious coalition, won 39 seats in the 325-member parliament, making him a sought-after ally as al-Maliki and secular rival Ayad Allawi jockey for the necessary majority support to govern. …

Al-Sadr’s offer may well be a political feint. His relationship with al-Maliki has been bitter at best since 2008 and his followers have frequently criticized the prime minister for failing to prevent bombings.

In offering his help – and expecting it to be rebuffed – al-Sadr can describe the militia as needed protection the next time his followers are attacked, according to Brett McGurk, an expert at the Council on Foreign Relations and former U.S. National Security Council official.

That, in turn, is exactly what the Sunni-dominated al-Qaida in Iraq wants: a loose-trigger Shiite adversary who might be easily goaded into sectarian fighting.

No group has yet claimed responsibility for the Friday attacks that killed 72, most near Shiite mosques or places of worship, but al-Maliki and other officials blamed al-Qaida in Iraq. The bombings were widely seen as payback for the killings last weekend of two top al-Qaida in Iraq leaders – and the smug cries of victory by Iraqi and U.S. officials.

“Government officials should direct their full attention to combating terrorism rather than showing up on television all the time to boast about their achievements,” said Baghdad political analyst Hadi Jalo. He called the killings of the terror leaders “of little significance because al-Qaida is always able to produce figures to lead and continue.” …

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5/26/2011 Update

Video

Militiamen celebrate hatred of America (NBC News, May 26, 2011) – In a major show of force as Iraqi leaders weigh whether to keep U.S. troops in the country beyond the end of the year, followers of anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr lead a huge rally in Baghdad. (00:37)

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Related reports on this site

Image: Shiite demonstrators in Baghdad
Thousands of demonstrators march during a rally at Firdous Square in Baghdad, Friday, Nov. 21, 2008. Followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who called America “an enemy of Islam,” marched against a pact letting U.S. forces stay in Iraq until 2011 and toppled an effigy of President George W. Bush where U.S. troops once tore down a statue of Saddam Hussein. (Photo credit: Ali al-Saadi / AFP – Getty Images)

Muqtada Al-Sadr Threatens to Unleash Mahdi Army Militia (April 9, 2011)

Sadr’s Triumphant Return to Iraq (Jan. 8, 2011)

Muqtada al-Sadr Rises to Power (Oct. 1, 2010)

Iraq Election Results (March 26, 2010)

Iraq Election Preview (March 6, 2010)

Iraq Set to Elect Pro-Iran Leader (Feb. 25, 2010)

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FROM THE ARCHIVES: One Year Ago — March 31, 2009

The White House roof
Al-Qaida’s next high-value target

White House Attack Will “Amaze”

One-year retrospective: One year ago today, I reported that Baitullah Mehsud, commander of the Pakistani Taliban, claimed responsibility for a deadly assault on a Pakistani police academy and said the group was planning a terrorist attack on the White House that would “amaze” the world.

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16 Responses to “Muqtada al-Sadr on the March”
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