In the sprawling slums of Baghdad’s Shia heartland, signs of triumph are everywhere. Loyalists of Muqtada al-Sadr are posting giant images of the cleric in hospitals, schools and on neighbourhood squares. Cakes and nuts, usually reserved for festivals, are being served to guests of key officials.
Sadr’s followers say theirs is a movement whose time has come. It has been like this for 16 days, since the exiled cleric confirmed his support for a second term for the incumbent prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. That move looks set to revolutionise political life in Iraq and, potentially, recast the brittle nation’s dealings with the west.
Hours after Sadr’s endorsement, on 1 October, the bulk of Iraq’s Shia political blocs announced that Maliki was their candidate for prime minister, after seven months of political torpor.
This crystallised two things; that Maliki would likely out-manoeuvre his rivals, and that those who supported him would want, in return, more than their share of treasure. On the regional chessboard that is Iraqi politics, Maliki’s move was akin to putting his key rival, Iyad Allawi, in check.
The price sought has now begun to emerge, along with a picture of how Sadr’s support was won and what it means for Britain and the US, who have invested 4,500 lives, billions of pounds and their international standing in the hope of shaping Iraq as a western-oriented democracy that realigns the regional balance.
According to Guardian sources, Maliki’s renewed grasp on power and the Sadrists’ elevation as influence brokers have been brought about by a consortium of the Middle East’s most-powerful Shia Islamic players, whose power bases are rooted in the region’s other main player, arch US foe Iran.
It has been spearheaded by the Islamic Dawa party, which opposed Saddam Hussein from a base in Tehran during the Ba’athist years, as well as by Maliki’s adviser, Tareq Najim Abdullah. Sadr and Ayatollah Kazem al-Haeri, a key exiled figure, who has acted as Sadr’s godfather, also led the way.
Qassem Suleimani, head of the al-Quds brigades, a division of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, and the head of Lebanese Hezbollah’s politburo, Mohammed Kawtharani, also heavily influenced the process. Above them all, two Shia Islamic overlords, Grand Ayatollah Khameini, and Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah are understood to have been involved in getting Sadr onside. In interviews over the past week, important players in Iraq’s power base have divulged the essence of what they believe the Sadrists demanded from Maliki’s envoys. It includes a grant of three ministries from his own quota, bringing to seven the number of ministries that the Sadrists could hold in a new government.
It also includes the position of secretary-general of the cabinet and, crucially, deputy positions in all the security agencies. A total of 100,000 roles allocated to Sadrists in government agencies appears to be on the table, as is a mass release of Sadrist prisoners.
A leading Sadrist, Nassar al-Rubaie, said that they were entitled to 25% from each ministry. The Sadrists won 40 seats in the 325-seat parliament. “The electoral process has delivered people who make decisions in this country and we are an important part of that group.”
Rubaie said the proposals offered by Maliki’s envoys had been enough to win Sadr’s support, even though the cleric had publicly stated that he could not abide a second term for the prime minister whose government he abandoned in 2007. Maliki’s response then was to send the army to rout Sadr’s militia in Sadr City and Basra, igniting a bitter feud.
A high-ranking third party was needed to break the stalemate, as trust was non-existent on both sides. In early September, the Iranians made the first move. Haeri told his understudy that Maliki was the way forward; he was not perfect, but both he and the Iranians thought they could work with him.
Maliki then made his move. He sent Najim Abdullah and the head of the Dawa party, Abdul-Halim al-Zuhairi, to the Iranian shrine city of Qom, to meet with Sadr. There they met Suleimani, Iran’s most powerful military general and nemesis of the US.
Suleimani has led the Quds force for the past 20 years. “He runs Iran’s policy in Iraq,” said a senior Iraqi official. “There is no dispute about this.”
Suleimani is also a key link to Hezbollah in Lebanon and to Hamas in Gaza, supplying weapons, money and training to help oppose Israel. A senior US official in Baghdad claimed this summer that the Iranian military was responsible for about 25% of all US casualties in Iraq. US intelligence officials believe Suleimani’s unit accounted for nearly all of them.
According to an authoritative source, Kawtharani was also at the meeting in Qom. The two courtiers, Abdullah and Zuhairi, discussed options with Sadr. He liked what he heard, but would not sign on without a guarantor. Suleimani put his name forward, but Sadr was aiming higher. He sought two of Shia Islam’s highest authorities to ratify what was being put to him – Khameini and Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah.
Sadr was won over, but Nasrallah’s name came with a condition. According to the source, when Nasrallah, who remained in Beirut, was consulted, he asked for a return guarantee from Maliki that the US military would disappear completely from Iraq by the end of 2011.
“Maliki told them he will never extend, or renew [any bases] or give any facilities to the Americans or British after the end of next year,” the source said. “They then went to try to smooth things over with the Syrians.”
Syria was an obstacle in the process, partially because ill-feeling between Maliki and the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, had been exacerbated by Maliki alleging in August 2009 that Damascus was harbouring senior Ba’athist leaders who had blown up two ministries in the centre of Baghdad, undermining his security credentials.
“Zuhairi met Assad at Damascus airport. In public and private he was very much opposed to Maliki before the meeting,” said the source.
Around the same time the Iranians made their second move. Ahmadinejad touched down in Damascus on 18 September on his way to the UN in New York. The pair spoke for two hours. According to a senior Iraqi government official in the days afterwards, Assad told his advisers: “Our Iranian friends want Maliki, and Maliki it is.”
It was a crucial circuit-breaker, which allowed Maliki to make concrete plans for a new administration that would be dramatically different from the last, both in make-up and orientation.
Ahmadinejad returned from New York six days later and at a final meeting in Tehran the deal was ratified. The first domino was then tipped – the Sadrists’ announcement. Then came the Shia list’s pledge of support for Maliki.
The last seven years have been a tug of war for the heartland of Arabia, underpinned by the nagging strategic challenge of whether Iraq will emerge as a strategic ally of the west.
The US was a primary player, but as its military withdraws, its influence plummets. The US embassy in Baghdad had thrown its weight behind a second term for Maliki, believing his secular rival, Allawi, is untenable as leader because his support base is largely Sunni. “That position only served to embolden Maliki and the Iranians,” said a senior western diplomat. “It was poorly conceived, poorly executed and utterly disastrous in its consequences.”
Last week, a US official offered an explanation: “We have switched from frontline players with muscle that we could wield, to straight diplomacy.”
In July, that same official said: “[The Sadrists’] world view and view of relations with the US is totally incompatible with any relationship that we could have.”
The US transition from military overlord to would-be democratic partner has escaped no one’s attention, nor has the vacuum left behind gone unremarked.
Publicly, however, the Dawa party is maintaining a different line. “There is no contradiction between the Iranian point of view and the US view in forming a new government,” said Zuhairi. “For example, the Americans have said this will be a Shia-led government. So, I say the Iraqi project is a reconciliation between Iran and the US.”
A western official claimed it was “nothing of the sort”, then, offering his view on recent US diplomatic efforts, said: “This is nothing less than a strategic defeat.
“They could not have got this more wrong if they tried.”
– Prophecy News Watch