Iraq's Dance: Maliki, Sadr and Sunnis

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Mahmoud Raouf Mahmoud / Getty

Tariq al-Hashemi, left, and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, right

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's most recent announcement saying the country's main Sunni political bloc was ready to rejoin the government at first blush appeared routine. Maliki has been saying this for months, though no tangible progress toward reseating members of the National Accordance Front in Iraq's ministries has emerged. But next week's negotiations between Maliki and Tariq al-Hashemi, the Sunni vice president and National Accordance Front leader, come as the political landscape is shifting in ways that may undo the longstanding sectarian deadlock. The Sunnis had five portfolios in the Maliki cabinet, but they boycotted it nine months ago. Now, they are thinking of returning not only because Maliki is providing amnesty to a number of Sunni prisoners but because he has has taken on their nemesis — the Mahdi Army led by radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. At the same time, however, the Sadr-Maliki conflict may cast Iraq into a deeper and more lasting crisis.

For more than a year Maliki, a Shi'ite, has struggled to form a working government with Sunni factions. Sunni political leaders had long scorned his government because of its association with Sadr. But Maliki and Sadr found themselves increasingly at odds over the past year, chiefly because Maliki ignored Sadr's demand to press for a hasty U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. In November 2006, Sadr withdrew his ministers from Maliki's government and the rift has grown increasingly worse. Throughout that time, however, Sadr remained a major figure in the political sphere by working through his loyalists in the parliament and hinting at times that he might rejoin Maliki's government. Sadrists even kept up a dialogue with the American embassy and senior U.S. military commanders, who earlier this year were openly encouraging Sadr to move away from militia activity and remake himself as a legitimate politician who could work within the government.

But the idea of Sadr becoming a nonviolent actor in Iraqi politics is all but gone after a month of almost daily street fighting between the Mahdi Army and Iraqi government forces backed by the Americans. Sadr appears now more than ever a militia leader, and the door allowing him to step into Green Zone deal-making seems closed. That means Sadr and his Mahdi Army are quickly becoming the major hardened mass resistance group to the Iraqi government and its U.S. supporters. Even if Maliki strikes a reconciliation deal with Sunni factions, his government will know no peace — and hold little legitimacy in the eyes of many Iraqis. In addition to commanding up to 60,000 militia fighters, Sadr has a popular following throughout southern Iraq and Baghdad. Sadr is, quite simply, the most powerful political player in the country, and any government without some meaningful inclusion of his following is unlikely to succeed in consolidating authority on a national scale.

If Sadr becomes an irreconcilable rejectionist, his movement will likely coalesce into a shadow state holding sway over key areas of southern Iraq and Baghdad, much as Hizballah does in Lebanon. Already the Sadrist movement works at providing public services such as cut-rate propane and health clinics in areas where Maliki's government struggles to maintain a visible presence. And Sadr, an Iraqi nationalist at heart, is likely to expand his civic projects in addition to his militia activity if he's completely frozen out of a new political coalition seated in the Green Zone.

A protracted confrontation with Sadr may be fine with Maliki, who appears to have given up on making peace with the cleric. But the allies the Prime Minister can rely on are at present uncertain. Maliki's support from Iraq's Kurdish leaders means little in the power plays in Baghdad and southern Iraq. And the question of how many American troops will remain in Iraq to support Maliki under a new U.S. President in 2009 looms heavily over the entire picture. Moreover, Maliki's ability to draw and keep Sunni confederates remains unclear. Indeed, even the latest murmurs of a renewed coalition government leave the prospects murky at best; political deals in Baghdad have a way of falling apart shortly after they are aired. "In theory, it's true," says Omar Abdul Sattar, a Sunni parliamentarian and member of the National Accordance Front when asked about the bloc's would-be deal with Maliki. "But we have to wait for the meeting next week."