The Kingmaker

Article excerpt

Byline: Babak Dehghanpisheh

When it comes to electing Iraq's next prime minister, Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's vote may be the only one that counts.

The men in black are back. They reappeared on Baghdad's streets about a month ago, the day after a series of bombs ripped through Sadr City and other Shia districts, killing at least 60 people and wounding more than 100. Two of the devices exploded near offices run by followers of the hardline Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. In the ensuing weeks, bombings and ambushes have spread to markets, security posts, and other public areas across Iraq, leaving more than 100 dead on May 10 alone, in the year's bloodiest single day yet. The attackers' message was clear: we'll do everything we can to restart the sectarian war and destabilize Iraq.

And by turning out in force, after nearly two years of keeping a low profile, Sadr's black-clad militiamen are sending a clear reply: we will meet violence with more violence. The day after the Sadr City bombings, about two dozen of the cleric's Mahdi Army enforcers gathered in small groups outside a mosque in northwest Baghdad's Shaab district, a Sadrist stronghold. Many of them packed handguns visibly bulging beneath their shirts, leaving no doubt of their intentions. And although seeing the armed Sadrists in the streets may have comforted some Shiites, others were distraught. "This is a disaster," said Muhanad Abdul Razzaq, a 43-year-old Shiite who owns a cell-phone shop in the Karrada neighborhood. "I did not leave Iraq in recent years; I had hoped that things would improve. But if [the militiamen] return, I will start thinking about leaving."

The Mahdi Army's leader has resurfaced as well. Physically, he's in Iran's holy city of Qum, where he's been living in self-imposed exile for the past three years. But in terms of raw influence, Sadr is now the most powerful man in Iraq. Almost immediately after the March 7national elections, audience-seekers from Baghdad began arriving in Iran--a vice president, and even a personal envoy from Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki himself, together with senior representatives from every other major political bloc in Iraq. And they came bearing offerings: the prime minister's envoy was ready to free Mahdi Army detainees in exchange for Sadr's support, and the emissary representing Ayad Allawi, the candidate who had won the most votes, promised a generous array of ministerial postings. (Representatives from both the prime minister and Allawi's bloc deny making these offers.) Almost three months after the balloting, the election's official results have yet to be certified. But when that finally happens, it's clear that Sadr will cast the deciding vote on Iraq's next prime minister.

Sadr's beard is streaked with gray now, but he hasn't lost his fire in the four years since NEWSWEEK called him "the most dangerous man in Iraq." "The military resistance will continue," he warned in a recent interview with Al-Jazeera. "We are inside the political process, but I will deal with the politicians in a political way and with the nonpoliticians in a nonpolitical way." He and his followers insist that his Mahdi Army will remain armed and ready to fight at least until the Americans get out of Iraq. "As long as there is this kind of occupation, we have a right to keep this wing," says Sadrist spokesman Sheik Salah Obeidi.

At present the emphasis is on politics--and that's enough to worry about. It looked like grounds for hope when Allawi's nonsectarian Iraqiya list of candidates captured at least a slim plurality of seats in the March elections. Many observers saw it as a clear sign that Sunnis had finally decided to participate in the political process in a meaningful way. But that hope faded with the recent announcement by the Sadrist--dominated Iraqi National Alliance and Maliki's State of Law coalition that they were joining forces, essentially forming a Shiite mega-coalition--a merger that Tehran has intensely lobbied for since even before the election. …