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Page last updated at 21:11 GMT, Friday, 2 April 2010 22:11 UK

How Sadrist vote could anoint new Iraq PM

By Jim Muir
BBC News, Baghdad

In the spring sunshine outside the Sadrist movement's HQ in the crowded Baghdad Shia suburb of Sadr City, a big tent had been set up as an improvised voting station in the referendum called by influential cleric Moqtada Sadr to find out who his followers would like to see as Iraq's next prime minister.

An Iraqi woman hands in her voting paper, 2 April 2010
The voting in the Sadrist referendum ends on Saturday

Milling around the tent, the voters here - almost all young men - were divided on who they supported among the five men named on the voting papers.

The contenders included the incumbent, Nouri Maliki, and his chief challenger, the secular Iyad Allawi, who came out of the polls slightly ahead.

But everyone at this particular station - one of many set up in mosques and Sadrist offices in parts of Baghdad and elsewhere in the country - was united on one thing.

They did not want Nouri Maliki to keep his job.

Asked whether anyone supported Mr Maliki, there was a chorus of "No Maliki!"

"He destroyed us with stagnation and arrests and checkpoints," said one disgruntled resident.

"The lads here are all sitting round unemployed. We're all tired. Our people have been tortured in jails. Their families are persecuted, and we're fed up."

"He brought us nothing but grief and broken promises," chimed in another.

"He was all lies. So as far as we are concerned, he failed."

But the name of the secular Iyad Allawi, a Shia who won much of his support from the Sunni community, also drew a chorus of disapproval among this religious Shia crowd.

"He's a Baathist, and we don't want them back!" said one, alluding to allegations that Mr Allawi's Iraqiyya bloc had become a repository for sympathisers and supporters of Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime.

Buzzing rumour

Apart from Mr Allawi and Mr Maliki, the all-Shia list of proposed candidates includes Ibrahim Jaafari, who was briefly prime minister in the first post-Saddam elected government; Vice-President Adel Abdel Mahdi, who hails from the Sadrists' coalition partners the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council; and Jaafar Sadr, an MP for Mr Maliki's Dawa Party, whose father founded that party and was executed by Saddam Hussein in 1980.

Moqtada Sadr - March 2010
Moqtada Sadr is emerging as a potential kingmaker

A few of the voters at the Sadr City station spoke warmly of former Prime Minister Jaafari.

But a larger number said they had added a sixth name to the list - as they were invited to do: Qusay Abd al-Wahhab, a not very prominent MP from the Sadrist movement, which was otherwise unrepresented in the contest.

The rumour buzzed around that this was the word that had come down from on high about what Moqtada Sadr - who has been living in the Iranian city of Qom for the past two years - actually wanted the referendum to produce.

If that turns out to be true and Mr Abd al-Wahhab comes out of the referendum ahead, that would muddy the already murky post-election waters yet further.

With some 40 seats, the Sadrists are the dominant component in the Iraqi National Coalition (INC), a Shia alliance that came third with 70 seats in the new chamber.

The INC holds the balance of power, since without it, neither Mr Allawi's Iraqiyya bloc (with 91 seats) nor Mr Maliki's State of Law Coalition (with 89) can muster the necessary majority of 163 seats.

So the INC can tilt the balance either way, and is strongly placed to veto any candidate or development of which it disapproves.

Kingmakers

But for the Sadrists to try to impose their own man would be a different matter altogether.

Far from being a compromise candidate, it would be a very controversial attempt, and it is hard to imagine it succeeding.

Followers of Moqtada Sadr attend Friday prayers in Sadr City
Many supporters of Moqtada Sadr dislike current PM Nouri Maliki

Being kingmakers is one thing. Trying to provide the king is another.

Were the Sadrist referendum to end up endorsing Mr Allawi or Mr Maliki, that would be decisive.

Any of the other three named on the Sadrist referendum list could emerge as potential compromises in the complex wrangling that is now going on.

Mr Maliki has said that an alliance between the two Shia coalitions - his own and the INC - is inevitable.

Iran, which has influence among the Iraqi Shia, is also believed to favour a closing of Shia ranks.

But the INC does not seem at the moment to be that way inclined.

Its majority constituent, the Sadrists, loathe Mr Maliki for destroying their Mehdi Army militia two years ago.

Some observers saw the referendum as a way of giving popular support to a move against Mr Maliki that might otherwise have looked like personal or political spite.

Ammar Hakim, leader of the INC's other main component, the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, has also praised Iyad Allawi and said forcefully that his faction would not join any government that did not include Mr Allawi's bloc.

Voting in the Sadrist referendum is free and easy, and open to anyone who wants to take part.

It was not clear if any steps were being taken to prevent multiple voting or other attempts to rig the result.

Officials said the outcome would be made known a couple of days after voting ended on Saturday.

BBC Graph
Al-Iraqiyya (Iraqi National Movement): Nationalist bloc led by former PM Iyad Allawi, a secular Shia, includes Vice-President Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni Arab, and senior Sunni politician Saleh al-Mutlaq
State of Law: Led by Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and his Shia Islamist Daawa Party, the alliance purportedly cuts across religious and tribal lines, includes some Sunni tribal leaders, Shia Kurds, Christians and independents
Iraqi National Alliance: Shia-led bloc includes followers of the radical cleric, Moqtada Sadr, the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, and the Fadhilah Party, along with ex-PM Ibrahim Jaafari and Ahmad Chalabi
Kurdish alliance: Coalition dominated by the two parties administering Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region - the Kurdistan Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, led by President Jalal Talabani



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