Militants To Kingmakers, Iraq's Sadrists Show Savvy

Sadrists vote in an unofficial referendum for prime minister. i

Iraqi supporters of the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr gather Friday in a Shiite suburb of Baghdad for a vote on five leading candidates for prime minister in an unofficial referendum. The Sadrists say the purpose of the vote is to let the movement's leadership know whom ordinary people want as their next leader. Ali al-Saadi/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Ali al-Saadi/AFP/Getty Images
Sadrists vote in an unofficial referendum for prime minister.

Iraqi supporters of the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr gather Friday in a Shiite suburb of Baghdad for a vote on five leading candidates for prime minister in an unofficial referendum. The Sadrists say the purpose of the vote is to let the movement's leadership know whom ordinary people want as their next leader.

Ali al-Saadi/AFP/Getty Images

Another election began Friday in Iraq. It's not a binding vote, but followers of the anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr are casting ballots in a referendum for prime minister. In practical terms, the winner can count on the support of Sadr's parliamentary bloc — and it's not a small one.

In fact, the Sadrist movement — once dismissed as a militia — has shown a sophisticated understanding of elections. As a result, it may be the kingmaker of Iraq's next government.

Sadr has made a career out of being underestimated in Iraq, from the beginning of the American occupation. After the U.S. invasion in 2003, his militia slowly took over much of the south. And in the first set of parliamentary elections four years ago, the Shiite cleric used his political force to push a compromise candidate for prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki.

As prime minister, Maliki later turned against the Sadrist militias and defeated them with U.S. military help. Sadr subsequently moved to Iran for religious study, and the Sadrists looked to be finished again. But last month's elections proved otherwise.

Liqa al-Yassin won a seat in the new Parliament and was among the top female vote-getters in Iraq. That's in part because of the Sadrists' mastery of Iraq's deeply complicated election law.

"We used the trick of dividing our supporters into cantons," says Yassin, one of the strategy's architects. Each canton was directed to vote for one of a limited number of candidates so the Sadrists wouldn't dilute their power at the polls.

The movement won 39 seats in the 325-seat Parliament, enough to heavily tip the scales for either leading candidate — former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi or Maliki, the current prime minister. All the other political blocs started negotiating behind the scenes, trading promises of ministries and policies.

But again, the Sadrists had a different idea.

At a news conference this week, Salah al-Obeidi, a spokesman for the group, announced a ballot with five choices — the presumed front-runners to be prime minister. Iraq doesn't have a presidential system; the biggest parliamentary coalition picks the prime minister.

But Obeidi says this way the Sadrists can make sure their leadership is in tune with their supporters.

"The purpose of this election is to recognize who is wanted by Iraqis as the coming prime minister. The Sadrists will adopt the result of this election during the negotiations about the coming prime minister," Obeidi said.

It's a marked contrast to the smoky backroom deals that have marked Iraqi politics over the past few years, and Obeidi says that's the point.

"This is the most important point. We don't want the choosing of the prime minister to be a deal. No, we want the choice of people," he said.

And with just a few days of preparation, the Sadrists began carrying out their straw poll.

A simple ballot listed Allawi and Maliki in addition to two members of the Shiite coalition: former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari and current Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi. The fifth name is a member of Muqtada al-Sadr's family, Mohammed Jaffar al-Sadr, who is allied at the moment with Maliki.

At one of the tents set up for voting at Friday prayers, a poll worker explained the five names to a voter in Baghdad's Sadr City district. An amiable argument broke out between the men standing in line about which candidate Muqtada al-Sadr prefers.

"Muqtada wants you to have free choice. He has nothing to do with it," says 18-year-old Haidar Ra'ad.

There is no real monitoring of this straw poll, but all of Iraq's politicians nervously await the results next week.

A vote for Maliki could end the feud between him and the Sadrists, still angry about the crackdown on their militia. Success for Allawi could be the crucial endorsement of a Shiite religious party that Allawi needs to balance his mostly Sunni base.

The Sadrists may have emerged as the Iraqi group that understands democracy the best, which is bittersweet for the Americans, because the Sadrists are also the only bloc that steadfastly refuses to meet with any U.S. government official.

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