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The Sadrists: Iraq’s Future Kingmakers?

30/03/2010

The Sadrists have done it again: risen from the ashes of political irrelevancy; put a spanner in the works of blossoming secular Iraqi democracy; reintroduced the spectre of Iranian interference in Iraqi politics…

Well, that’s not quite the truth of the matter: the Sadrist’s militant Jaysh al-Mahdi (JAM) wing has been down since Maliki’s military offensives against it in Basra and Baghdad in 2008, but the political leadership has never been out and made a respectable showing in January 2009′s provincial elections; even without the Sadrists, Iraqi politics would still be fraught with sectarian tensions; and Iran has shown ready in the past to back whichever Shi’a horse looks strongest and accepts its patronage.

Nonetheless, Friday’s unanticipated announcement of electoral victory for Ayad Allawi’s secular Iraqiyya Coalition could ring very hollow indeed over the coming months if he cannot bring the Sadrists on board. The radical Shi’a political bloc has taken 39 seats from a national total of 325 with the possibility of more after compensatory seats are allocated. This puts the Sadrists miles ahead of Badr and the Iraqi Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), their unlikely allies in the Iraqi National Alliance (INA). Overall the INA has 68 seats, and if this result appears to put them in a poor third place when compared with Allawi’s 91 seats and Maliki’s 89, for the Sadrists, it could be a dealmaker.

So what does all this mean?  The expectation of Sadrist success has understandably been seized upon with alarm by commentators. Anthony Shadid’s piece in the NYT last week took the result as proof that Iraqi support for former exiles who collaborated with the US post 2003 had collapsed, and speculated that the Sadrists could usurp the position of the Kurdish bloc as kingmakers in the Iraqi parliament.

Ned Parker and Raheem Salman followed this with an article in the LA Times set amidst the supporters of victorious Sadrist politician Hakim Zamili in Sadr City, Baghdad. The article gently mocked the efforts of US forces over the preceding seven years by pointing out that Zamili was arrested just three years ago by US Forces on suspicion of orchestrating death squads through the Iraqi Health Ministry. These days, he is smiling at the prospect of imminent political influence.

But in truth, nobody really knows what it means yet – not even the Sadrists themselves. As the component parts of fragile coalitions scramble to realign themselves with the promise of key positions or stakes in key issues, there is no telling who will jump which way. Given the turbulent past of their relations, there is no evidence that the political glue currently binding the Sadrists to ISCI will hold; but after Maliki’s treatment of the Sadrists over the past few years, an alliance between them and the State of Law with Maliki at the helm must appear equally if not even more unsavoury. A political arrangement that brought the Sadr bloc closer to Allawi’s secular Coalition seems frankly hard to imagine, but in Iraqi politics, who is to tell?

At any rate,  alarming as the prospect of a strong Sadrist presence in the next Iraqi parliament may be, there was no good reason ever to believe that the Sadrists would not do relatively well in the elections. The socially and economically disaffected Shi’a populace who comprise the backbone of Sadr’s support may have become disillusioned with the violence JAM militants brought to their communities, but what evidence have they been given that any of the other political groupings will fight their corner?