Sadr followers spurn front-runners in Iraq

Allawi, Maliki fail to woo important Shi’ite voting bloc

By Hamid Ahmed
Associated Press / April 8, 2010

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BAGHDAD — The two front-runners who are vying to become Iraq’s next prime minister failed to get the support of an influential Shi’ite movement in results from a poll released yesterday, further muddying the political situation following inconclusive March elections.

Instead, the bulk of supporters of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who has emerged as a kingmaker, said he should back Shi’ite politician Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who was interim prime minister from 2005 to 2006. Nearly as many cast ballots for one of Sadr’s relatives.

The Sadrists held the informal weekend poll after former prime minister Ayad Allawi’s secular bloc won just two seats more than incumbent Nouri al-Maliki’s coalition in March 7 parliamentary elections. With both sides far short of the majority needed to govern alone, the candidates are scrambling to muster the support needed to form a government.

Sadr became key to those efforts after his followers won at least 39 seats in the 325-seat parliament, up 10 seats from their current standing. That makes them the largest bloc within the Iraqi National Alliance, a Shi’ite religious coalition that placed third in the race.

Sadr’s spokesman Salah al-Obeidi announced the results of the poll but left open whether Sadr would follow the guidance of his supporters in the course of future negotiations, which are expected to take months.

“Each event has its own way,’’ Obeidi said.

Maliki and Allawi received only 10 percent and 9 percent of poll votes, respectively.

The results were hardly a ringing endorsement for Jaafari, either, with Sadr’s relative Mohammed Jaffar al-Sadr receiving 23 percent of the vote, senior Sadrist politician Qusay al-Suhail receiving 17 percent, and a handful of others splitting the remainder of the ballots.

Sadr rose to prominence after the 2003 US-led invasion, forging a political dynasty based on the network and prestige of his father, a leading Shi’ite cleric killed by Saddam Hussein in 1999. His followers fought some of the bloodiest battles with US forces and were blamed in some of the worst sectarian violence before they were routed by a series of US-Iraqi offensives in 2008.

There has been deep enmity between the Sadrists and Maliki since the prime minister turned on Sadr’s powerful militia in 2008, despite receiving key support from Sadr in 2006 when he formed his government.

Winning Kurdish support could also be key in helping either Maliki or Allawi form the next government.

Yesterday, a representative of Iraq’s Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani met with the country’s most revered and politically influential Shi’ite leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, in Najaf for talks on the process of forming new government.

As he emerged from the talks, Talabani’s adviser Fakhri Karim said the cleric had told him he was pushing for all factions to be involved in the political process.