updated 10/1/2010 6:53:13 PM ET 2010-10-01T22:53:13

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.

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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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Video: Vice President Biden on the future of Iraq

  1. Transcript of: Vice President Biden on the future of Iraq

    MADDOW: man on Iraq . Political crisis over the Iraqi election it was Vice President Joe Biden who flew to Baghdad to try to diffuse the crisis. When the Iraqi leaders dead-locked on creating a new government Vice President Joe Biden flew to Baghdad to talk to them. When U.S. combat operations officially ended last month, Vice President Joe Biden flew to Baghdad for the official ceremony. He has been there six times since taking office. While back in D.C. , he runs the administration's monthly meetings on Iraq . And when I spoke with Vice President Biden yesterday, he had just met with the president and with the former commander of the U.S. forces in Iraq , General Ray Odierno .

    MADDOW: I know you're just out of a meeting with General Odierno . JOE BIDEN , U.S. VICE PRESIDENT : Yes.

    MADDOW: The departing commander of the U.S. You 've been in Iraq a number of times including quite recently. You told " The New York Times " last week -- they published the transcript of you speaking with them about Iraq . And you said, "The bottom line is there are a lot of bad ass 50,000 troops that are left. These guys can shoot straight. Fifty thousand troops in country is still a big, big contingent." With 50,000, as you put it bad ass troops --

    BIDEN: Guys who can shoot.

    MADDOW: Guys who can definitely shoot.

    BIDEN: And women who can shoot.

    MADDOW: I was in there. I know they are.

    BIDEN: And the women can shoot, too. By the way.

    MADDOW: Yes.

    MADDOW: And they are -- they are in peril. Since the handover, we have had U.S. killed in action. We have had U.S. wounded in action. Does it undercut their service and their sacrifice to say this is no longer a combat mission ? Why do we need to use that phraseology when it seems like they're in combat?

    BIDEN: No. I'll tell you why we have to use the phraseology. Because the Iraqis -- we've trained up 650,000 Iraqi forces. They actually -- and here's the point, and I know you know this. They have been taking over since January of last year. We have made a -- we made a firm commitment to the Iraqi people and the American people . One, we get all combat troops out of the city last year. We would get -- we would bring down from 100,000 to 50,000 -- which we've done -- troops in the country this -- by this end of this August. And all 50,000 remaining will be out by the end of next year. We have fundamentally shifted our positions where we are located. So we're in a very different role. It's a support role. But we are there in case the Iraqis need additional help to use our combat. And by the way, it was used recently. You know, so -- so it really isn't -- the technical definition of the combat lead means that you're the commander out there, leading the troops, the Iraqis are behind you, and you're saying up over the hill and you're leading the way. We're not doing that anymore. But it was very important to -- for the sovereignty of the Iraqis to let them know we recognize the fact they are now capable. They are capable. We'll continue to train them. We'll continue to help them. But by the end of next year, we're out. We're gone. And so it may be, you know, a bit of a misnomer. But in literal military terms, we are no longer in a combat position. We are doing support. We are protecting American facilities, the embassies. We are protecting American personnel, American citizens and we're training Iraqis .

    MADDOW: One last question. I know your time is short. But on the issue of Iraq , having come back from there, I felt like -- if I forget all the history and I just think in very, very broad strokes about the fact that we have had 7 1/2 years of American presence in Iraq , a trillion dollars, all of those lives lost. All of the -- everything that was spent there in every sense. To be leaving there with there being no electricity in Baghdad and the suffering that that causes the Iraqi people , the effect that that has on the prospects of stability and peace and civil society taking hold in Iraq after all those years, electricity seems to be not just one of a list of things. It seems like the thing that we could most to do for the Iraqi people if we could do anything. Why hasn't that been the U.S. priority, to leave them with at least that to remember us by?

    BIDEN: By the way we will. By the time we leave, we will. Number one. Two, I've been there 13 -- I don't know, 14, 15 times. There is a great deal more electricity there was than when the war first started. And when there was before.

    MADDOW: In Baghdad .

    BIDEN: Well --

    MADDOW: In Baghdad , Saddam gave back a lot of power to the rest of the country.

    BIDEN: Yes -- no, no. No. But nationwide. Nationwide.

    MADDOW: Yes.

    BIDEN: Thirdly , what's happened is, as we -- as the Iraqi -- as we, and now the Iraqis , when they go eliminate the al Qaeda that's left in Iraq as well as the -- there's a difference between terrorism and insurgency. The insurgency was out there trying to form a new civil war . It hasn't worked. It hasn't taken root. And -- but they were also doing a great deal of damage to the electrical infrastructure and the electrical grid and the deliver of services. This is going to just get better and better and better, but it's a long process. And we're going to -- look. When we leave Iraq next year, we are not -- we are leaving militarily. But we are significantly ramping up our civilian presence. I mean, significantly. And we are working -- I conduct a meeting once a month with the -- our folks in Iraq as well as with our every Cabinet member . I have the secretary of commerce, the secretary of education, the secretary of treasury , the secretary of agriculture. We're all there working now with the Iraqis . Providing for the ability to help them build their institutions so they can function, including how to make the electric grid function. So that is a process. We're not walking away from that. We are -- we are increasing our civilian commitment. And we're trying to work out what they call a -- you know, a strategic arrangement long term with them that is not military but it is on the civilian side. And look. The Iraqis are not in a position now. But by the year 2013 , they're going to be in surplus. By the year 2015 , '16, '17 and '18, they'll -- they have enough natural resources to be pumping as much oil as Saudi Arabia . So this is about stabilizing them, getting the functioning government in place, having eliminated the insurgency, putting the Iraqis in a position they can take care of their own physical security. And now help them to build their institutions. This is going to work.

    MADDOW: It's going to take a long time.

    BIDEN: It is taking -- absolutely. Nothing easy about it. But we're bringing those kids home including my son.

    MADDOW: Mr. Vice president, thank you so much for your time.

    BIDEN: Thanks.

    MADDOW: It's a real honor to have this much time with you. Thank you, sir.

    BIDEN: Well, thank you.

    MADDOW: Thanks.

    BIDEN: Thank you.

    MADDOW: The vice president telling me that what we're doing right now in Iraq is going to work. The idea of getting electricity to Baghdad , going to take a long time. Paul Rieckhoff of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America joins us next. And we are still due this hour to learn yet more about New York Republican candidate Carl Paladino . After that, brain bleach will be offered by your ushers as you leave the studio. We'll be right back.

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