The political movement of Iraq's best-known anti-American cleric has emerged as a major contender in next month's national elections, raising the possibility that the next prime minister could be openly hostile to the U.S. and friendly toward Iran.
A prime minister loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr might push the U.S. military to speed up its withdrawal timetable and pose a threat to future military and economic cooperation between the United States and Iraq.
Such a choice also could undermine efforts to reconcile Iraq's religious groups, with memories still fresh of brutal sectarian warfare between al-Sadr's Shiite militiamen and Sunni extremists.
The United States looks to the March 7 election as a key step to cement Iraq's infant democracy.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's alliance, backed by the powers of incumbency, has been widely viewed as the bloc that would emerge with the largest number of seats.
Coalition facing tough challenge
But al-Maliki's standing has been hurt by a series of horrific bombings in central Baghdad that exposed the inadequacies of Iraq's security forces. The lack of tangible improvement in basic services and allegations of corruption have further hurt his chances.
Al-Maliki's coalition is facing a tough challenge from a rival Shiite bloc, the religiously oriented Iraqi National Alliance. The main partners in this bloc are the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, or SIIC, and the Sadrists.
If the Iraqi National Alliance emerges as the largest bloc in the 325-seat parliament — and if the Sadrists win more seats than SIIC — that would likely place the fiery cleric in a strong position to pick the next prime minister.
SIIC officials are quietly acknowledging that the Sadrists are likely to emerge as the biggest winner in the bloc, thus robbing their own party of the chance to secure the prime minister's job.
They say Iran, which wields a great deal of influence within Iraq's Shiite establishment, is throwing its weight behind the Sadrists in the hope that they would do its bidding in a new government.
A top SIIC leader, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic, said the party would try to prevent the Sadrists from gaining control by securing the support of smaller groups within the coalition.
Officials at al-Maliki's Shiite-led "State of Law" coalition also have acknowledged the Sadrists will fare well in the vote.
Salah al-Obeidi, al-Sadr's chief spokesman, told The Associated Press that party projections indicate the National Alliance would win 70 to 80 seats in the new legislature. Of these, he said, the Sadrists would have at least 35 seats.
While the forecast by the Sadrists could prove to be optimistic — there are no reliable polls — the movement has rebounded over the past year.
Grass-roots social welfare network
Al-Sadr's own political fortunes have been cyclical since he emerged as a power broker at the height of Iraq's violence. He maintained a low profile after leaving for Iran in 2007 as the U.S. began its buildup of troops, who cracked down on his militia and Sunni insurgents. But he recently has appeared to be positioning himself as a politician, replacing his militia with a grass-roots social welfare network.
His movement made a respectable showing in last year's provincial elections and has seen support grow in Baghdad and across the southern Shiite heartland. Much of its rise is tied to its social, health and education services and tireless calls for the withdrawal of the Americans, a stand that resonates with mostly poor Shiites who see the U.S. presence as the root of the country's problems.
A Sadrist prime minister, or one under the movement's influence, would likely call for a faster withdrawal of U.S. forces, who are currently scheduled to be gone by the end of next year.
A Sadrist-led administration also could jeopardize progress toward national reconciliation after years of killings and kidnappings, mostly at the hands of al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia — which battled U.S. troops for years in Baghdad's Shiite slums and in cities across the south.
It also would deal a blow to the U.S. aim of creating a model Western-style democracy in the region, as the Sadrists would likely favor a strict interpretation of Islamic teachings. Al-Sadr himself believes in the right to rule by the most learned cleric, the concept that underpins the rule of the clergy in neighboring Iran.
Unlikely that cleric would take job
Al-Sadr's supporters haven't commented on whether they have a specific candidate for the prime minister's post — and it's highly unlikely that the fiery cleric would himself take the job. Al-Sadr, who has been studying in Iran for the last two years, prefers to speak from the pulpit and is known to be seeking an elevated position in the Shiite religious hierarchy.
But al-Sadr, whose followers fought U.S. forces for years before being routed in a series of offensives, would be able to handpick a candidate for the job or at least play kingmaker if his supporters win enough seats in the new parliament.
Sami al-Askari, a close al-Maliki aide, questioned the Sadrists' ability to forge a postelection alliance with the country's main Kurdish bloc — a necessity in Iraq's fractured political scene since no single bloc is expected to win enough votes to claim an outright majority.
Iraq's Kurdish and Sunni minorities are expected to emerge with enough seats to allow them to be key partners in a Shiite-led government. In a similar position is a secular alliance led by former prime minister Ayad Allawi.
Another al-Maliki aide, Ali al-Adeeb, said the Sadrists would probably adopt a candidate from outside their ranks to ensure the support of other blocs. The two aides said an election victory for the SIIC-Sadrist alliance was far from guaranteed.
One-time Pentagon favorite Ahmad Chalabi and former prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari were among names mentioned by officials from SIIC and within the ranks of the Sadrists.
Many Sunnis particularly loathe Chalabi for what they see as his campaign to weaken them through his leadership of a panel that has weeded out thousands from government and armed forces jobs for their alleged ties to Saddam Hussein's regime.
Al-Jaafari's tenure as prime minister in 2005 and 2006 saw some of Iraq's worst sectarian violence, leading some to charge that he turned a blind eye to the slaughter of Sunnis.
Both men are known to be close to Iran.