BAGHDAD — A Muslim cleric who once used a militia to resist the American invasion positioned himself as a big winner in Iraq's monthslong political deadlock Friday when his party threw its support behind the beleaguered prime minister.
The hard-line Shiite group led by Muqtada al-Sadr called it the start of its ascent to nationwide power — a specter sure to spook the United States.
Washington considers the cleric a threat to Iraq's shaky security and has long refused to consider his movement a legitimate political entity. But Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki may be unable to govern without him.
March elections failed to produce a clear winner and left the nation in turmoil — a power vacuum that U.S. military officials say has encouraged a spike in attacks by Sunni insurgents.
Final agreement on how to form the new government could still be weeks if not months away, but "the Sadrist acceptance of al-Maliki as prime minister could begin to break the logjam," said Iraq expert Daniel Serwer of the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington.
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Allying with al-Maliki poses a political risk for al-Sadr among his followers, many of whom hate the prime minister, and the cleric's top aides refused Friday to publicly explain why he did it. The most that Sadrist lawmaker Nassar al-Rubaie would say is that both camps now seek to "open dialogue with the other winning political groups to form the government."
But it is clear to Iraqi and U.S. officials that al-Sadr seeks unfettered and increased influence in the next government if al-Maliki comes out on top.
The cleric, whose militia once ran death squads out of the health ministry headquarters in Baghdad to target Sunnis, has been in self-imposed exile in Iran since 2007.
As part of agreeing to back al-Maliki, a leading Sadrist said the movement has demanded key government positions, including deputy parliament speaker and as many as six Cabinet-level ministry posts of the 34 to be filled.
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Controlling service agencies like Iraq's health, oil, construction and electricity ministries would allow Sadrists to hire supporters and boost political loyalty. Sadrists also are clamoring to run the trade ministry, which would carry some sway over foreign policy, and at least one of the agencies tasked with Iraqi security missions — a huge red flag to U.S. officials.
Down the road, after the American military has fully withdrawn in 2011 and U.S. diplomatic influence has waned, Sadrists will make a play for the prime ministers' post, said a leading party official who spoke on condition of anonymity because al-Sadr has forbidden his aides from discussing the negotiations.
"In the future, the premiership will be for us," the Sadrist official said. "We will have nominees who will compete when the next elections are held after the departure of the (U.S.) occupation."
Having a Sadrist in power would endanger if not scuttle hopes of establishing a thriving democracy in Iraq that could be a model in the region. There are worries about how much influence Iran now carries over al-Sadr after offering him refuge for more than three years.
While saying it does not have a favorite candidate among those vying to become prime minister, the Obama administration strongly opposes giving power to al-Sadr and his followers. It is largely a moot wish: Sadrists were the only party to gain seats in parliament in the March 7 vote, winning 39 of the 325 in a signal of their rise.
That has put them in the position of being wooed by other Shiite political leaders for support.
"The Sadrists having a key role in the next government of Iraq was one of the few redlines that the Obama administration had," said Ken Pollack, an expert at the Brookings Institute think-tank in Washington who was a key Iraq policymaker in the Clinton administration.
"They've staged this major comeback, and the administration is very, very worried about that," Pollack said. "This is something Iran has been trying to do for months. Clearly this is a big win for them and really bad for the U.S."
In Baghdad, U.S. Embassy spokesman David J. Ranz avoided even using the word Sadrist when asked for an official statement Friday about the movement's partnership with al-Maliki.
Ranz said the embassy welcomed actions that would lead to a new government in Iraq, now stalled for nearly seven months. And he said the U.S. hoped to see "an inclusive and legitimate government, responsive to the needs of the Iraqi people."
Al-Maliki has been scrounging for allies since his political coalition fell short in the election to the secular Iraqiya coalition, which is largely backed by Sunnis and led by former Shiite prime minister Ayad Allawi. Neither side won enough support to control the government outright, touching off backroom dealing with other coalitions to garner the necessary 163-seat majority.
Pollack, the U.S. expert, said the deadlock between al-Maliki and Allawi allowed the Sadrists to step into the void. "They have played their hand really skillfully," Pollack said.
Senior Iraqiya lawmaker Osama al-Nujaifi said an al-Sadr alliance with the government "will definitely complicate the situation."
Ultimately, Kurdish parties that hold 43 seats are likely to tip the balance, and they are widely expected to throw their weight behind al-Maliki if they sense he can hold on to his post.
Kurdish leaders who control a semiautonomous northern enclave had no immediate comment Friday, and generally have remained on the sidelines in the political maneuvering. Iraqiya would have to win over not only the Kurds, but also some Shiites, to gain control of the government.
And some prominent Shiites have yet to side with al-Maliki, which could open potentially disruptive rifts as Iraq tries to find a political balance.
Conspicuously absent from Friday's announcement was Shiite cleric Ammar al-Hakim, leader of the devout Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council that was earlier aligned with the Sadrists. Aides to al-Hakim said he and about a dozen followers have not yet decided to back al-Maliki.
Al-Sadr's support for al-Maliki marks a turnabout, and is not likely to be embraced by all of his followers. For months, the group has demanded the prime minister be replaced, and Sadrist rallies routinely call for his death.
In 2008, a joint U.S.-Iraqi offensive broke the grip of al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia in Baghdad and Basra, routing Shiite death squads that terrorized Sunni neighborhoods and had brought the country to the brink of civil war.
Earlier this week, some Sadrists sent a message to the cleric, asking him why he would support a leader who had fought his army.
Al-Sadr asked them to fall in line.
"You know the policy is give and take," he wrote in an answer posted on his website. "Our goal is to serve you and lift the oppression on you as much we can. I ask you to stand beside (Sadrist political negotiators). Anyone who stands against them is standing against the private and public interests."
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