Al-Sadr signals election strategy

Bloc to endorse candidates but not compete as party

June 16, 2008|By Ned Parker and Raheem Salman | Ned Parker and Raheem Salman,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD - Members of Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's political bloc announced yesterday that the group would not compete as a party in coming local elections but would endorse candidates.

The decision appeared aimed at allowing the Sadrists to play a role in the election despite a government threat to bar the bloc from fielding candidates if it did not first dissolve its militia.

The endorsements "will not be for Sadrists alone, but for individuals, chieftains, people with popularity and talents to serve and offer public services to the people," said Sadrist Parliament member Haidar Fakrildeen. "We will support them; we will advise the people to vote for them."

The al-Sadr movement, with small exceptions, did not participate in provincial elections in January 2005. In the coming round, scheduled for fall, it had been expected to do well and perhaps best its main Shiite political rivals, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and Dawa party.

But Sadrists have charged that a spring military campaign in Basra, led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of the Dawa party, had been an effort to damage their movement's ability to competing successfully in the fall vote.

The Iraqi Parliament has yet to pass an electoral law, and the stalemate could delay balloting. The Parliament is divided on whether candidates should compete individually or on closed party lists, and over whether the law should ban parties with militias from competing. Al-Maliki has been pushing for the ban in what has been interpreted as a move against al-Sadr.

Al-Sadr, whose Madhi Army fighters have battled periodically with U.S. and Iraqi government forces, has taken steps in recent days to improve his militia's image. On Friday, he announced that the movement would have only an elite armed wing for fighting U.S.-led forces, while the rest of his fighters would put down their weapons.

Outside observers described al-Sadr as playing his cards carefully in what could be the start of a major drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq this fall.

"His strategy is not to confront the Americans but to wait out their departure, only to emerge stronger to face his rivals, especially SIIC," said Joost Hiltermann, an expert on Iraq with the International Crisis Group think tank. "Sadr aims to counter SIIC's attempts to provoke the Mahdi Army and delegitimize it ahead of the elections by showing its moderate face."

The policy of endorsing candidates also could minimize the political damage if the election results, either legitimately or through manipulation, favor SIIC and Dawa.

"He wants to assume the role of the dissident outsider," said Vali Nasr, a professor of international politics at Tufts University in Massachusetts. "At the same time he wants to stay in the system to protect his interests."

Meanwhile, Iraqi forces continued to surround the southern city of Amarah, which is dominated by the al-Sadr movement. The move, which began Saturday, appeared aimed at asserting government authority over the area and hunting down al-Sadr loyalists wanted by police.

Maj. Gen. Tariq Abdul Wahab Jasim told tribal sheiks that wanted individuals who had not killed or hurt anyone would receive amnesty if they surrendered by Wednesday. Amarah residents had until that date to hand in explosives and heavy weapons, according to the government.

Ned Parker and Raheem Salman write for the Los Angeles Times.

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