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Now, however, al-Sadr’s arrival onto the scene gravely complicates the matter. For starters, even if Maliki were so inclined to grant an extension, he is in little position to publicly confront al-Sadr over the issue given his craven pursuit of al-Sadr’s support after the March 2010 Iraqi parliamentary elections.
When those elections had produced no clear winner between Maliki’s Shiite-led State of Law bloc and the Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc, the Iraqi government was thrown into a state of political limbo, with both sides working feverishly to form a ruling government.
In October 2010, Maliki then traveled to Iran to meet with al-Sadr in an attempt to garner his support to break the political logjam. Despite al-Sadr’s long criticism of Maliki’s close relationship with the United States and Maliki’s backing of a 2008 US-Iraqi offensive that crippled his Mahdi militia, al-Sadr still endorsed Maliki for Prime Minister.
However, the subsequent Sadr-Maliki pact was contingent on Maliki enforcing the December 31 pullout date. So, with deal in hand, Maliki was reappointed Prime Minister in November 2010.
To many, al-Sadr’s return to Iraq is nothing more than an on-site attempt to ensure Maliki’s adherence to that promise. While some may discount al-Sadr’s ability to enforce Maliki’s compliance, others see al-Sadr in possession of some formidable influence.
First, al-Sadr’s holds a strong political hand, evidenced by his political party winning 40 out of 325 parliamentary seats in the March 2010 election. Moreover, eight of his allies have been given seats in Maliki’s cabinet.
Second, al-Sadr holds lethal clout as well. Although his Mahdi Army–which once had an estimated 60,000 fighters–was disbanded in 2008 as part of a ceasefire agreement with the Iraqi Army, it was replaced with a reportedly more elite force, the Promised Day Brigade (PDB). While it is unknown how many fighters are in the PDB or their effectiveness, al-Sadr has never shied away from using military force to achieve his political aims.
Finally, al-Sadr enjoys a long and deadly working relationship with both his Iranian benefactors and with Hezbollah, one begun when al-Sadr and members of his Mahdi militia went to Teheran to receive military training in 2004. It was at that time al-Sadr adopted the Hezbollah organizational model. Like Hezbollah, there is fear that al-Sadr hopes to morph his movement from a pure terrorist outfit into a quasi-political organization, one with a well-financed armed component.
Of course, there are those who say al-Sadr’s connection to Iran and Hezbollah is overblown, arguing that al-Sadr requires neither group to fuel his anti-American, anti-Western agenda. While that may or may not be true, what is evident is the immediacy al-Sadr’s reemergence has already had on Iraqi discourse. Days after his arrival, over 2,000 al-Sadr supporters took to the streets to protest the US occupation.
It was the first concrete sign that al-Sadr was truly back. As the Iraqi people have unfortunately learned the hard way, that’s a terrifying prospect.
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