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    Middle East
     Apr 7, 2010
The return of kingmaker Muqtada
By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS - Arab and international media are busy debating who will become the new prime minister of Iraq. Iyad Allawi, a symbol of secularism who came out with 91 seats in the March 7 elections, or incumbent Nuri al-Maliki, a religiously-driven statesman who came in second, with a total of 89 seats.

Although the numbers seem to say it all, it is becoming increasingly uncertain who will become the new premier, given that government-mandated de-Ba'athification committees are trying to disqualify five of Allawi's 91 deputies, which would bring his share down to 86 and shoot Maliki into a majority with his 89 seats.

As the two men bicker, a real uncrowned prime minister emerges


from the shadow - rebel turned statesman, Muqtada al-Sadr, a fiery anti-American politician inspired by Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah. His say will ultimately make or break the future prime minister.

Analysts have predicted that political Islam is beginning its long march into history in Iraq, thanks to the results of provincial elections in January 2009 that led to the collapse of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC) "empire".

Wisdom resulting from lack of progress in their day-to-day lives led Iraqis to look elsewhere for leadership, explaining why in 2009 the SIIC lost eight out of the 11 provinces it had controlled since 2005. This time, the SIIC came out with only 20 seats out of a total of 70 garnered by the Iraqi National Alliance (INA) - a clear setback from where it had stood in 2005 when, thanks to the leadership of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the SIIC commanded a 140-seat majority in parliament.

Today the INA, headed by the SIIC, is down by 70 seats. Of the 70, the lion's share of 40 goes to Muqtada, who in the outgoing parliament commands 30 seats.

Muqtada took the streets of Iraq not because of his Islamic agenda or credentials (theologically speaking he is not senior) but because of his commitment to seeing the United States out of Iraq, and the massive charity network that he operates, providing the needy and poor with jobs, money, hope and protection from lawlessness.

That network has been copied, with great success, from the Hezbollah model in Lebanon. At the weekend, Muqtada polled residents in his constituency, asking followers whom they wanted as the new prime minister. Both Maliki and Allawi held their breath, since Muqtada's mass following is not fond of either.

Allawi, after all, waged war against them in 2004, while Maliki persecuted Muqtada's men and arrested his top officials in a massive 2007-2008 crackdown on Sadr City, a vast slum in Baghdad.

The young leader, aged 37, gave his followers five choices: Maliki, Allawi, Adel Abdul Mehdi of the SIIC, Ibrahim al-Jaafari (another former prime minister) and Muqtada's relative, Jaafar al-Sadr, a 39-year-old member of Maliki's State of Law Coalition. Although results are yet to be announced, sources close to Muqtada have signaled that he wants Jaafar al-Sadr, having very little faith in Allawi, Maliki and Jaafari, whom he describes as pro-American.

Although running as allies last March, Muqtada was never too fond of the SIIC, given the historic rivalry for supremacy in the Shi'ite community between Muqtada's family and that of Ammar al-Hakim. Muqtada has always accused them of being too close to the Iranians, haranguing Ammar's father, Abdul-Aziz, who died from cancer in 2009, for having fought alongside the Iranian army during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war.

Muqtada never left Iraq, not even during the most difficult years of Saddam Hussein's rule. He claims that his military wing, the Mahdi Army, was "made in Iraq" while Hakim's militia, the Badr Brigade, was founded and bankrolled by the mullahs of Tehran.

Additionally, Muqtada wants to see a united Iraq allied to the Arab world, while Hakim has toyed with the idea of creating an autonomous Shi'ite district in south Iraq, similar to the Kurdish one in the north, which is frowned upon by the Sadrists. Depending on what the Muqtada vote says, the identity of the new prime minister will be determined. Whoever it is, he will need a vote of confidence by 163 deputies out of 325 to secure the premiership. Only Muqtada has the ability to make that happen.

Muqtada's victory and renewed status as kingmaker challenges those who claimed that religiously driven politicians were on the demise after the March 2010 elections. The man is certainly no secular and ultimately hopes to establish an Iran-style theocracy in Baghdad, independent, however, from overt Iranian influence.

Last week, he made that very clear by traveling to Tehran along with senior members of his party to meet with Iranian officials. Not only did he go to Iran, but so did other heavyweights in Iraqi politics, like Maliki, President Jalal Talabani and Ammar al-Hakim. The only noticeable person missing from the Tehran visit was Allawi.

Muqtada therefore, is currently standing in the middle, coming across as neither too pro-Iranian like Hakim, nor too independent like Allawi. To better understand how Muqtada will act in the weeks ahead it is safe to revisit his relationship with Maliki in 2006-2007.

The two men had hammered out a tactical alliance; Muqtada provided the prime minister with grassroots support in the slums and ghettos of Baghdad - thereby providing legitimacy throughout the Shi'ite community - while Maliki gave him protection from state persecution as well as important portfolios in the government, like the ministries of Education, Commerce and Health.

That relationship snapped because Maliki failed to push for a timetable for US troop withdrawal, forcing Muqtada to withdraw his support from the Maliki cabinet. The prime minister at that time saw this as a blessing in disguise, given that his relationship with Muqtada had embarrassed him in the Arab community, especially after the hanging of Saddam at which a Muqtada loyalist chanted "Muqtada" as the ex-president was approaching the hangman's noose.

Maliki immediately ordered the arrest of Muqtada's top men and raided Sadr City - one of the reasons for his loss of popularity in 2010.

The lesson is not lost on all those who are eyeing the premiership today, explaining why all of them are struggling for an alliance with Muqtada al-Sadr.

Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria.

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Iraq squeezed between US and Iran (Mar 31, '10)



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