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Muqtada Sadr's clout diminishing

The U.S.-Iraqi accord signals that the political future of the once powerful Shiite cleric is in doubt.

December 02, 2008|Tina Susman | Susman is a Times staff writer.

BAGHDAD — A lasting image from the parliamentary debate here on the U.S.-Iraqi security plan is of a lawmaker loyal to Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr sweeping his arm across a table in a rage, hurling books, papers and a vase of flowers onto the floor of the chamber.

Ahmed Massoudi's televised tantrum, and days of Sadr loyalists shouting, pounding desks and pleading for parliament to reject the pact, made no difference. Shiite, Sunni Arab and Kurdish lawmakers approved the Status of Forces Agreement, which sets a Dec. 31, 2011, deadline for American forces to leave Iraq. Sadr says the deal has loopholes that could extend the U.S. presence.

The vote last week was a sign of how Sadr's clout has diminished since 2005, when his parliamentary bloc provided the boost needed to propel fellow Shiite Nouri Maliki into the prime minister's role. Now that Sadr's ultimate goal, a U.S. exit, is in sight, questions arise about his political future.

Things have changed from the days when Sadr's support was crucial to keeping Maliki in power, or when his supporters could use their street credibility to turn the public against the prime minister. Sadr has lost some political and military run-ins with Maliki. Critics and observers say he has made some missteps.

In April 2007, Sadr pulled his six supporters from the Cabinet to pressure Maliki to hold the U.S. to a withdrawal date. Maliki rejected the ultimatum and replaced them, virtually denying the Sadr bloc a voice in his government.

A year later, Maliki's offensive against Shiite militia strongholds in Basra and the Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad ended with Sadr calling a cease-fire and his fighters giving up the streets they had controlled. Even though Maliki needed U.S. air power and ground support, by all accounts he emerged with a stronger sense of himself as a leader, willing to challenge the Americans, Sadr or anyone else who got in his way.

"Negotiations took a twist after Basra," said a U.S. official. "I mean, this is an Iraq that was really standing up and showing us and everyone they can do something."

A second U.S. official said that passage of the Status of Forces Agreement, or SOFA, leaves Sadr and his 30-member parliamentary bloc in an awkward spot. Acknowledging that the pullout dates are firm "would probably not be a political decision Sadr would be interested in taking," said the official, because it would leave him without an issue to rally his supporters.

Sadr has worked hard to portray the pact as full of holes designed to let the Americans stay longer. The pact includes withdrawal dates -- June 30, 2009, for combat troops to leave cities, towns and villages and Dec. 31, 2011, for all troops to leave Iraq.

There is some vagueness. The pact does not specify what constitutes a "combat" troop; it leaves many details to be worked out by yet-to-be-formed committees; it allows for amendments if both sides agree, which could be interpreted as allowing for extensions.

Those arguments were not enough to sway other lawmakers. Some had indicated they were wary of the pact, but struck bargains in exchange for their support. Sunnis won agreement on a July referendum that could force Iraq's government to cancel the pact if voters reject it.

"Sadr did not have a clear set of demands, as did the Sunnis. He was simply opposed to any deal, and that left him out when deal-making started," said Vali Nasr, an expert on Iraqi politics at Tufts University.

Toby Dodge, an Iraq analyst at London's International Institute for Strategic Studies, said neither Sadr loyalists nor the Sunnis wanted to be seen as embracing the SOFA and, by extension, the presence of foreign forces. But unlike the Sunnis, who could use their demand for a referendum as proof they had resisted the security agreement, Sadr's supporters never had a plan.

"I think the Sadrists have really marginalized themselves, and that leaves some uneasy questions," Dodge said.

For instance, does Sadr plan to turn his Mahdi Army militia into a Hezbollah-like organization to wield power lost in the political arena? Does he plan to resume attacks on U.S. forces?

Sadr loyalists are not saying, and they deny that they have been isolated.

"We are living under a democratic system. Alternative opinions are to be respected. This is one of the conditions of a democracy, and if we oppose something in a peaceful way, this must not lead to isolation," said Safa Asadi, chief of Sadr's political movement in Basra.

Maliki convinced other lawmakers that the deal was the best option if Iraq wanted to retain an extra layer of security while Iraqi security forces get ready to take over. He said the final deal proved that Iraq had mastered the art of haggling with the U.S. "We worked and so did our team, and they got as much as they could from the American side," Maliki said in a televised address Nov. 20.

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