Moktada al-Sadr, future Iraqi Prime Minister?

Scott Sadler Contributor
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Over the last few weeks, he has been called “kingmaker” in Iraqi politics.  Now, the real question looms.  Could Moktada al-Sadr be positioning himself for a future run as the Iraqi Prime Minister?  As noted in a previous column, let there be no doubt that he remains one of the most influential religious and political figures in Iraq today. “Sadr is emerging as a dominant player in deciding how Iraq’s next government will be formed,” says The Washington Post.

On Friday and Saturday, Mr. al-Sadr instructed his group of supporters and, anyone else in the country for that matter, to select their candidate for the next prime minister. The Los Angeles Times had their own take on this latest bend from the March 7th elections: “The unofficial balloting held across the country Friday was less about who will rule the country than a demonstration of the staying power of Sadr’s populist movement.”

For his part, Mr. al-Sadr, who is living and studying in Iran, said in a statement read to his followers before Friday prayers that “according to political developments, a mistake might occur in choosing the next prime minister, and for that I think it is in the (national) interest to assign it directly to the people.”

This referendum has no legal authority and officials said the outcome would be made known a couple of days after voting ended on Saturday. Supporters “stood in long lines on Friday,” according to Reuters news agency and “whoever comes out on top is the person the group will back for prime minister,”  according to the Associated Press.

Those on the ballot include former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and current Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki.  The other names listed are Ibrahim Jaafari, who was briefly prime minister in the first post-Saddam elected government; Vice-President Adel Abdel Mahdi, who hails from the Sadrists’ coalition partners the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council; and Jaafar Sadr, an MP for Mr. Maliki’s Dawa Party, whose father founded that party and was executed by Saddam Hussein in 1980. They are all Shias.

However, there appears to be a sixth name being added to the list – as a write-in candidate.  Speculation looms that Mr. Sadr would prefer Qusay Abd al-Wahhab, of the Sadrist movement, to prevail. “If that turns out to be true and Mr. Abd al-Wahhab comes out of the referendum ahead, that would muddy the already murky post-election waters yet further,” suggests the BBC.

All of this comes on the heels of a violent, troubling incident in Baghdad on Saturday.  Iraqi officials say attackers killed 25 people in a Sunni area south of the capitol city.  According to the Times, “the killers came at night, speaking passable English and wearing uniforms and carrying weapons that resembled those of the American military.”  By the time it was over, “bodies were handcuffed and had been sprayed up and down with machine gun fire,” said the AP.  All of the dead were members of the Sons of Iraq, a group who joined forces with the Americans at the height of the sectarian warfare to help quell the violence.  The day before this attack, 23 prisoners escaped from an Iraqi jail in Mosul, north of Baghdad.  It is reported that there were al-Qaeda militants and other “high value” detainees among those who escaped.  Of the Saturday massacre, Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, Baghdad’s security spokesman, said it bears “an obvious al-Qaida hallmark” which begs the question, Are the two incidents related?  Is it isolated or is trouble coming?  Also, on Easter Sunday, Iraq experienced its first major attack since January and only the fifth since August of 2009; suicide attackers detonated car bombs in Baghdad near the German, Egyptian and Iranian embassies, killing at least 41 people and wounding more than 200.

I still believe the sectarian violence days are over but these unpleasant episodes reinforce the fact that, despite the significant gains, Iraq is still fragile. “The period of uncertainty since the March 7 elections is expected to last well into the summer, and many officials worry that political battles could incite violence, potentially destabilizing the already fragile country as U.S. forces draw down,” according to the Post. Which is why it is even more important that a government is formed and Moktada al-Sadr sidelined now before it’s too late. Reporting by the Times suggests Iraqis are doing just that: “Despite the violence on Sunday, Iraq’s leaders seemed determined to show they were committed to the political process, conducting high-level meetings throughout the day in the heaviest flurry of activity since results were announced on March 27.”  Politics is trumping whatever violence there is and that is a good thing as Iraq looks to the future and sheds the past.

Scott Sadler is an experienced communicator with an in-depth expertise with crisis communications who has served in senior level positions in the federal government, Capitol Hill, and in a military theater of operation.