BAGHDAD â€” From hiding, possibly in Iran, anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr is believed to be honing plans to sweep into the power vacuum made all the more intense by news that his chief Shiite rival has lung cancer. And he’s betting the US won’t keep its troops in Iraq much longer.
Sadr aides and loyal lawmakers have told the Associated Press the cleric’s ambitions mean he will avoid taking on the Americans militarily as he did in 2004, when his Mehdi Army fought US forces to a standstill.
Instead, the 33-year-old cleric plans to keep up the drumbeat of anti-American rhetoric, consolidate political gains in Baghdad and the mainly Shiite south, and quietly foster even closer ties with neighbouring Iran and its Shiite theocracy.
The strategy is based in part on Sadr’s belief that Washington will soon start pulling out troops or draw them down significantly, leaving behind a huge hole in Iraq’s security and political power structure, Sadr’s associates said.
Iraqi Defence Minister Abdul-Qader Al Obeidi told reporters Monday that Iraq’s military is drawing up plans in case US-led forces leave the country quickly.
“The army plans on the basis of a worst-case scenario so as not to allow any security vacuum,” Obeidi said.
“There are meetings with political leaders on how we can deal with a sudden pullout.” It was unclear whether Obeidi was referring to routine contingency planning, or if his remarks reflected a new realisation among Iraqi leaders that the days of American support may be limited.
Sadr also believes, his associates said, that Shiite Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s government may not last much longer, given its failure to improve security, services and the economy. A government collapse is certain to be followed by a political realignment in which the Sadrist movement stands a good chance of emerging as the main player. Sadr’s loyalists have 30 of parliament’s 275 seats.
The six lawmakers and aides spoke to the AP in separate interviews over the past week. Several agreed to speak of the movement’s future only on condition of anonymity because they are not authorised to discuss strategy with outsiders. They stuck to broad outlines, declining to be drawn into specifics.
“We gave the government a historic opportunity, but Maliki did not use it and that’s why we are preparing for a state led by the Sadrist movement,” said an Sadr political aide who is among those who spoke on condition of anonymity. “An Islamic state led by the Sadrists is our future,” he said.
The impact of such a plan â€” if implemented â€” would be far reaching.
An Iraq with ultra-radicSadrist Shiites holding dominant power would seek to curb US influence and bolster the influence of clergy-ruled Iran throughout Iraq and possibly outside its borders in the Sunni Arab heartlands of Saudi Arabia, Syria and Jordan.
It also could deepen the Shiite-Sunni divide and unleash a wave of Shiite militancy with offshoots joining forces with like-minded groups, such as Lebanon’s Hizbollah.
Sadr is said by US officials to have been in Iran since he dropped out of sight some three months ago and is widely believed to be increasingly relying on Iran as the main sponsor of his movement.
After weeks of claiming the cleric was back in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf, his backers now concede Sadr is, in fact, in Iran.
“Without Iran, the US can crush the Sadrist movement,” said Vali Nasr, a prominent US-based expert on Shiite affairs. “When you have 50,000 to 60,000 fighters, you need a sponsor like Iran,” said Nasr, alluding to the reported strength of the Mehdi Army.
Moving closer to Iran now would be a timely tactic since Tehran’s main Iraqi client, the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq, is widely thought to have forged closer ties with the United States and used a key party conference this month to adopt a new creed stating its commitment to Western values like human rights and democratic rule.
The supreme council’s leader, Abdul-Aziz Al Hakim, has been diagnosed with lung cancer and is in Iran for chemotherapy treatment. His illness removes from the scene, at least temporarily, a major Sadr rival.
Sadr’s Mehdi Army men have frequently fought with the council’s own private army â€” the Badr Brigade â€” in southern Iraq, an oil-rich region where the two groups compete for dominance.
A preview of a Sadrist-led Iraq can be found in Sadr City, a crowded Baghdad district where some 2.5 million Shiites live under the virtual governance of the Sadrists and the Mehdi Army.
Islamic Sharia Courts operate freely in the neighbourhood.
Girls as young as seven are forced to wear the Muslim veil.
Stores selling alcohol have been forcibly shut. Religious punishments, like flogging those who violate Islam’s ban on alcohol, are routine.
“We want an Islamic system,” said Nassar Al Rubaie, a Sadrist lawmaker. “We want a presidential system that will produce someone with a power similar to that of a Muslim caliph.” Much of the Sadrists’ resolve to create an Islamic society, according to the lawmakers and aides, has to do with the movement’s strong messianic convictions. In Shiite terms, this translates into making society sufficiently pure for the return of the so-called Hidden Imam, a descendant of the Prophet Mohammad. Shiites believe he will return one day to bring justice to the Earth.
“The hidden imam is our saviour,” said Amer Al Husseini, a cleric and a senior aide to Sadr in Baghdad. “We need to prepare for his return, both ideologically and practically.” To that end, Sadr yanked his five ministers from Maliki’s unpopular government last month and ordered his Mehdi Army to go underground while the US military stages what is likely to be its last major bid to quiet the capital.
Sadrist lawmakers, meanwhile, are pushing to have parliament adopt a decision demanding a timetable for the withdrawal of US-led foreign troops.