Anti-American cleric Muqtada Sadr's movement increasingly has… (Khider Abbas, EPA )
Reporting from Baghdad — In an illustration of its growing muscle in Iraq as U.S. influence wanes, anti-American cleric Muqtada Sadr's movement has won pardons for at least 50 prisoners jailed for crimes including murder, kidnapping and attacks on U.S. troops.
The amnesties come at a time when U.S. forces remaining in Iraq have faced an increased number of attacks, many by Shiite Muslim militias associated with the Sadr movement. And they have angered some senior Iraqi officials, who charge that the law is being applied selectively and bent to fit a hidden political agenda.
Only a few Iraqi officials are aware of the pardons, granted by President Jalal Talabani at the request of the Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, who needs the backing of Sadr's movement to stay in power.
Among those freed are prisoners who were convicted under anti-terrorism laws, crimes for which the Iraqi Constitution specifically forbids granting a pardon. At least three prisoners were serving life sentences; some were arrested during U.S. military operations.
Sources who reviewed government records said that at least 50 people were freed this spring. Parliament Speaker Usama Nujaifi, a rival of Maliki, said his office received copies of an estimated 65 pardon decrees, all of them for prisoners charged with illegal weapons possession, kidnappings, killings or crimes with intent to kill.
"The credibility of the judiciary will be gone, especially when it comes to terrorist cases," Nujaifi said.
A source close to the president's office acknowledged that some of the convictions came under terrorism laws but described the original cases as politically motivated. The prisoners were cleared by a follow-up investigation ordered by Maliki and conducted by the judiciary, the source said. "It proved they were not implicated in terrorism or any crime," the source said.
A senior lawmaker with the Sadr movement said it had demanded the release of 3,000 prisoners, including some accused of killings and illegal weapons possession, but only a small number were freed after investigation.
"This was very limited compared to the numbers of Sadrists who are detained, and most of them with no evidence," said the lawmaker, Amir Kinani.
Kinani also defended the "legitimacy of the work" of Sadr followers who were jailed "for hitting [foreign] forces."
The releases show how political power has flowed to the Sadr movement, which emerged as a strong anti-American voice after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
It presented itself as the voice of Iraq's Shiite underclass, offering social services to the poor and promoting a fundamentalist view of Islam.
Its Mahdi Army militia protected Shiite communities from attack but also fought U.S. troops. Militia members also were implicated in killings, extortion and kidnappings that were carried out as part of Iraq's sectarian war, and battled other armed Shiite groups and political parties for turf in southern Iraq.
Although the prime minister and Sadr supporters are all part of Iraq's new Shiite elite, neither side trusts the other. Maliki cracked down in 2008, casting himself as a defender of the Iraqi state and winning a large public following as a result.
Three years later, the situation has largely reversed itself. The Sadr movement still maintains an armed wing that attacks U.S. troops, but Maliki now depends on the group to keep his government in power. Under pressure from their backers in Iran, Sadr supporters threw their support behind Maliki after inconclusive elections last year and helped him secure a second term.
Maliki knows they could withdraw it at any time.
For its part, the Sadr movement is aware that Maliki could turn on the group again. It is intent on wringing concessions from him and shedding its image as a troublemaker. The group has announced a new campaign against members who commit crimes against Iraqis.
Before the pardons, the Sadr movement had already capitalized on its political position. Last summer, it won the release of hundreds of detainees handed over by the Americans before their cases reached Iraqi courts. It gained important positions in the Interior Ministry and a governorship that had been held by Maliki's Islamic Dawa Party.
Until May, the Taji detention center north of Baghdad was in effect run by detainees belonging to the Mahdi Army, according to Iraqi officials and U.S. military officers, with prisoners coming and going freely.
The Sadr movement started pushing for the amnesty in November, the same month Maliki secured his second term in office.
Critics say the pardons set a dangerous precedent by sacrificing the rights of victims and subjecting the judicial process to political negotiations.
"We might see even more of these political agreements in the near future. These things aren't new," said lawmaker Safiya Suhail, who previously belonged to Maliki's movement and is now an independent. "It's a part of the whole package of having Maliki as the prime minister."