Iraq's Race for Political Advantage After US Departure

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Ali Yussef / AFP / Getty

A man holds up posters of Shi'ite Muslim anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, left, and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, right, during a protest in central Baghdad

The discord in Iraq's parliament and on its streets over the Baghdad government's Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Washington is over a lot more than the date on which U.S. troops are to withdraw and the rules governing their conduct until then. As the rabble-rousing Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr made clear on Friday, it's also about which Iraqi parties will best leverage the Americans' eventual departure to their own political benefit. Sadr drew thousands of supporters to Firdous Square in central Baghdad on Friday to protest against the draft accord, which awaits a ratification vote in Iraq's parliament on Monday.

The message from Sadr's camp was the denunciation of any accord that invited the Americans to remain in Iraq for any length of time. "Those who are in a rush to sign the agreement must know that their terms will eventually end," read Sadr's sermon, which was delivered by Sheikh Abdul-Hadi al-Mahammadawi. "History will record the honorable position of the nationalists who rejected this humiliating agreement." (See picture of five years of U.S. troops in Iraq.)

Sadr has threatened to resume attacks against the U.S. military if it does not leave Iraq "without retaining bases or signing agreements," but his capability to do so is questionable. Sadr himself was absent; he's believed to be in Iran studying at a seminary. Although the turnout at the rally staged by his supporters was respectable, his once fearsome Mahdi Army militia has largely melted away. Still, by upping the anti-American ante, he has buffed his nationalist bona fides and turned up the heat on the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has sought to appeal to the same nationalist sentiment among Iraqis by forcing the Americans to accept hard deadlines for withdrawal and make other concessions.

Sadr has based his populist appeal on the fact that he was one of the few Shi'ite political opposition figures to remain in Iraq under Saddam Hussein — most of the Shi'ite leaders in the current government returned from exile — and on his strong opposition to the U.S. occupation from the get-go. But with the SOFA inaugurating a final chapter in the U.S. presence in Iraq, Sadr must redefine himself. To that end, the young cleric, who has not been seen in public in 18 months, is believed to be studying to attain the revered Shi'ite title of ayatollah. As an ayatollah, his views and religious edicts, or fatwas, would carry considerable weight. Currently he offers political leadership, but he and his followers are required to take spiritual guidance from an accredited ayatollah, or marja, of their choice.

The most important among Iraq's marjas is presently Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who has reportedly agreed not to oppose SOFA but has insisted that it be adopted on the basis of a strong national consensus. By drawing his supporters into the streets and loudly expressing opposition in parliament, Sadr and his followers are seeking to undermine the legitimacy of the agreement, and those Iraqi leaders who have backed it, by demonstrating the absence of the consensus called for by Sistani. Sadr's bloc of some 28 lawmakers is not enough to block a parliamentary vote on SOFA, which has already been approved by the Cabinet and must also get the nod from the three-person Presidency Council. But spirited opposition to the deal can help him distinguish himself from his Shi'ite political rivals in the government ahead of provincial elections in January and a national vote toward the end of 2009.

Sunni parliamentarians are also positioning themselves to make the most of any deal and say that they fear the security agreement further empowers Maliki. "We are part of the government, but we are employees; we are not partners," said Omar Abdel-Sattar al-Karboole, a member of the Tawafuk Front, the largest Sunni parliamentary bloc. "Maliki is a new Saddam Hussein. He does not listen to our demands."

The Sunni bloc wants a referendum on the security agreement and, more important, amnesty for the (mostly Sunni) detainees in U.S custody. Under the terms of SOFA, the detainees would be transferred to Baghdad's control at the end of the year, after the U.N. mandate covering the U.S. mission here expires on Dec. 31.

Although Maliki's Shi'ite bloc and the Kurdish parties, which back SOFA, have the numbers to push it through the 275-member Parliament without the support of the Sunni bloc and a broad consensus, the pact's legitimacy will be questioned. That has suddenly increased the value of Tawafuk's 44-parliamentary-vote political currency, and they know it. "If there is a positive reaction to some of our demands, we are politicians; we will respond accordingly," Karboole said. "We don't want to leave the party empty-handed." The tricky thing is, neither does anybody else.

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