Sadrists wait for their government rewards

As Nouri al Maliki, Iraq's prime minister, mulls over whom to appoint in his next government, the radical Sadrist movement is well placed to win some influential positions.

BAGHDAD // As Nouri al Maliki, Iraq's prime minister, mulls over whom to appoint in his next government, the radical Sadrist movement is well placed to win some influential positions.

The hard-line Shiite group, a close ally of Tehran and staunch enemy of the United States, played a critical role in securing Mr al Maliki a second term as premier by agreeing to add their 40 parliamentary seats to his coalition.

With Mr al Maliki due to name his candidates for ministerial positions within the next three weeks, it is still unclear what deal he struck with the cleric Muqtada al Sadr. But there is a widespread assumption here that such crucial support would have come with a high price attached.

Thousands of Sadr supporters were jailed during Mr Maliki's first term, when he waged war on the group's militia wing, the Mahdi Army. Their release is widely thought to be one of the concessions the prime minister has made to gain their backing.

"There is no question the Sadrists want to see their jailed members freed," said Ahmed al Jenabi, an independent political analyst from Baghdad who is highly critical of the Sadr movement. He warned such releases would result in renewed bloodshed as former detainees sought revenge on their captors.

"I've spoken to Sadrist figures and they talk about 'hurting anyone who hurt the Sadrists'," he said. "To me that means they will go after the police teams that arrested them."

While praising the political deal that led to Mr al Maliki's nomination as prime minister earlier this month - ending more than eight months of deadlock - the US has also voiced concern over the possible influence the Sadrists will wield.

James Jeffry, the US ambassador to Iraq, described the Sadr movement as "a problematic partner for a democratic process" and urged Mr al Maliki to "be cautious" over the governmental positions offered them.

Analysts say Tehran was heavily involved in forging the Sadr-Maliki alliance, forcing an abrupt U-turn from the Sadrists, who had been firmly against the Iraqi prime minister's bid for another term of office.

"The Americans are worried about the role of the Sadrists in the next government and, frankly, so are many Iraqis," said Mr al Jenabi. "Many Iraqis consider the Sadrists dangerous, if they have too much power, democracy here will suffer."

A police informant who helped Baghdad security forces arrest a number of Sadrist militants, said he expected a wave of unrest if a new administration was announced with Sadr followers in key posts.

"We have watched as they tried to crush personal freedoms for the last seven years, they were prepared to kill to do that," he said, on condition of anonymity because of fears for his safety. "They have the mentality of the Taliban and Iraq will return to the dark ages if they have their way."

Among rumours circulating in Iraq are that the Sadrists have demanded major positions inside the security or justice apparatus, hoping to seize control over the ministry of interior.

Sa'ad al Matlabi, a pro al Maliki MP, dismissed claims that such deal had been done and said the Sadrists' critics "misunderstood" the group.

"The Sadrists are a political movement and they are popular in Iraq," he said. "They did well in the election and they have the right to take part in the political process. "It's not true or fair to say they are an obstacle to the democracy, they should be allowed to make official decisions as part of the Iraqi government and that will be positive for Iraqi democracy, not negative."

Mr al Matlabi also brushed off concerns the presence of the Sadr movement would damage Baghdad's relationship with the US and bring Iraq closer to Iran. "Our strategic partnership with the US will not be affected by our alliance with the Sadrists. We will never forget what the Americans did for the Iraq people [in toppling Saddam Hussein] and our relations will be good."

Sadrist members are adamant, however, that they will carry their opposition to the US forces with them into the next administration.

"Sadrists in government will not meet with any US officials. We will not make any deals with them. We will abandon the Americans," said Khadem al Sayadi, a Sadrist MP.

"We have been consistent in our opposition to the US occupation of Iraq and we will refuse any attempt to get the occupation to continue [beyond the 2011 pull-out date]."

Mr al Sayadi said the US could not claim to promote democracy in Iraq, only to seek to sideline the Sadrists, who performed well at the ballot box, because they had different ideas.

"The Americans will fight hard to limit our rights in the next government but they will not be able to because the Iraqi people voted for us, and gave us a mandate," he said.

"For that reason, we expect to assume our rightful position in the next government and we will try to educate Iraqis about the negative alliance with the Americans, who have destroyed rather than built our country."