After Iraqi elections, Shiite leader emerges as unlikely US ally

BAGHDAD – Standing on a podium with an Iraqi flag at his side, the religious Muqtada al-Sadr looked like a statesman reading a post-ele...


BAGHDAD – Standing on a podium with an Iraqi flag at his side, the religious Muqtada al-Sadr looked like a statesman reading a post-election speech.

In the 18 years since he formed the Mahdi Army militia to fight the US occupation forces, the former brandon has honed his performance. His formal Arabic is more competent and his voice more assertive. Looking up to address the camera, he raised his finger emphatically in carefully crafted remarks to send messages to the United States and Iran after his party won seats in the parliamentary elections in the United States. last week.

In 2004, as Mr. al-Sadr’s fighters clashed with US forces with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades in Baghdad and the southern provinces, the US pledged to kill or capture the Shiite cleric. .

After al-Qaeda, he posed the greatest threat to the US occupation of Iraq, embroiling US troops in fighting in the streets and alleys of Iraqi cities as the military battled Sunni and Shiite insurgencies.

While still unpredictable, the cleric is still an Iraqi nationalist and now appears to be emerging as an independent American ally, helping the United States by preventing Iraq from leaning further in line with Iran.

“All embassies are welcome, as long as they do not interfere with Iraqi affairs and the formation of the government,” al-Sadr said in a reference targeting the United States, whose embassy was stormed two years ago by what were believed to be members of Kitaib Hezbollah, one of the largest Iraqi militias supported by Iran. “Iraq is for Iraqis only.”

In the preliminary results of last Sunday’s elections, the Sadrist movement won around 20 seats, giving it up to 73 seats out of 329 members of parliament. This leaves Mr. al-Sadr with the largest bloc in parliament and a decisive voice in the choice of the next Iraqi prime minister.

In his remarks, the cleric made pointed reference to Iranian-backed militias, some of which have grown more powerful than official Iraqi security forces and pose a threat to the United States in Iraq.

“From now on, weapons must be restricted in state hands,” he said in the speech broadcast on Iraqi state television. “The use of weapons must be prohibited outside the framework of the state. Even for those who claim to be the “resistance” to the American presence, he declared, “it is time for the people to live in peace, without occupation, without terrorism, without militias, without kidnapping and without fear.”

The so-called resistance groups are the same Iran-backed militias that launched drone and rocket attacks against the US embassy and US military bases after the american murder a prominent Iranian commander, Major General Qassim Suleimani, and a senior Iraqi security official in Baghdad last year.

A collaborator of the Shiite cleric said the disarmament of groups not under government control would also apply to Mr. al-Sadr’s own militias.

“No country wants forces stronger than its army,” said Dhia al-Assadi, a former senior official in the religious movement. He said al-Sadr would leave it to the new government to decide whether US forces should stay in Iraq.

The United States has agreed to withdraw all combat troops from the country by December 31, although Washington does not consider its troops to be currently on a combat mission. Under the deal, the number of US forces – around 2,000 in Iraq at the invitation of Baghdad – are expected to remain the same.

“It is labeling or classifying the troops as trainers and not fighters,” said Mr. al-Assadi, who was the head of the former Ahrar political bloc of Mr. al-Sadr. “The decision should be reconsidered again and decided by Parliament and the government. “

Mr al-Assadi said he does not foresee any change in the current ban on senior officials of the Sadrist movement from meeting with US or UK officials.

Once a staunch sectarian defender of Iraq’s Shiite majority, Mr. al-Sadr has expanded his influence in recent years, reaching out to Sunnis, Christians and other minorities. After telling his supporters to protect Christians, young men in Mr. Sadr’s stronghold in the predominantly Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City in Baghdad began to wear large crosses around their necks in solidarity. In a previous election, the Sadrists formed an alliance with the Communist Party, which is officially an atheist.

Externally, he fostered relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates at a time when Sunni Arab rulers in those countries were hostile to the Shiite-led Iraqi government. Domestically, one of its main demands is to cleanse the dysfunctional and deeply corrupt Iraqi political system, which appoints people to senior government positions on the basis of party loyalty rather than competence.

“He grew and evolved,” said Nabeel Khoury, a former US State Department official who served in Iraq in 2003. “But I think we underestimated him to some extent at the very beginning. “

Mr. Khoury said he was approached in 2003 by collaborators of Mr. al-Sadr as Iraq’s first governing council was being decided.

“We had a coffee, we talked and they said that Sadr was interested in playing a political role,” Mr. Khoury said, member of the Atlantic Council. But Iraqi politicians who had returned from exile did not want Mr. al-Sadr involved, Mr. Khoury said, and the United States followed their advice.

A few months later, the cleric formed his Mahdi army militia to fight the occupation troops.

When US forces had the opportunity to kill al-Sadr in a battle in Najaf, Washington told them to withdraw, also on the advice of expatriate Iraqi politicians, Khoury said, adding: ” They knew if Sadr had been killed. it would become a big problem for them.

Mr. al-Sadr, 47, is the youngest son of a revered cleric, Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, who was assassinated by Saddam Hussein in 1999 after demanding religious freedom for the Shiites of Iraq. The Sadr family commands the loyalty of millions of people, many of whom are poor and willing, most of whom believe their electoral victory was ordained by God.

In Sadr City, the Sadriste organization provides food, support for orphans and widows, and many other services that the Iraqi government does not provide.

“He would like to achieve certain goals, and the main goal is social justice,” al-Assadi said of the cleric’s goals. He compared Mr. al-Sadr’s goals to those of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. or Mahatma Ghandi.

But unlike the black civil rights leader or the pacifist icon of India, Mr. al-Sadr oversaw an armed militia that grew and shrunk but never completely disappeared.

The Mahdi’s army has been accused of fueling past sectarian violence in Iraq. While fighting Sunni al-Qaeda fighters for supremacy in Iraq between 2006 and 2008, Mr. al-Sadr’s fighters were accused of leading death squads and carrying out sectarian cleanups of neighborhoods. of Baghdad.

Mr. al-Sadr said not all fighters were under his control.

In 2008, after losing a fight against Iraqi government forces for control of Basra, Mr. al-Sadr – who lacks his father’s religious credentials – abruptly left for Iran to continue his theological studies.

Yet he has a long and difficult relationship with Tehran, and although he cannot afford to upset its rulers, he advocates an Iraq free from Iranian and American influence.

“I think he has his own space that he walks in, and his base is not dictated by any country, especially not the Iranians,” said Elie Abouaoun, a director of the United States Institute of Peace, a think tank funded by the US government. “I think he is a lot less sectarian than many, many others because he has a nationalist outlook on Iraq.”

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Newsrust - US Top News: After Iraqi elections, Shiite leader emerges as unlikely US ally
After Iraqi elections, Shiite leader emerges as unlikely US ally
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