The recent elections in Iraq have left the country with a dangerous political deadlock. With neither Iyad Allawi’s Iraqqiya bloc nor Maliki’s State of Law bloc pulling a majority in the Parliament, the game of coalition building is in full swing. However, a parallel game is being played out, and it is about regional influence and may well shape the future of Iraq’s role in the Middle East for decades to come.
Since the 2003 invasion, Moqtada al-Sadr has emerged as a major x-factor in Iraqi politics. Commanding the dispossessed, poor, urban Shia population, the young scion emerged as an international figure by openly declaring resistance against the U.S. and coalition presence in Iraq. The Mahdi Army became a force to be reckoned with, and Sadr himself quickly became a figure of national prominence and influence. Perhaps more importantly, he became the most visible conduit of Iranian influence in Iraq. There is little doubt that the Mahdi Army received funding, as well as material and logistical support from Iranian Revolutionary Guard elements. This intimate relationship between the Sadrists and Iran was the natural outcome of co-religiosity, political opportunism, and international gamesmanship. And now, with the election leaving a leadership vacuum, Sadr and Iran again have entered the fray in a significant way.
Maliki has travelled to Tehran, and plans to go to Qom as well. It is clear that in going to Tehran, Maliki is hoping to not only show that he has an open door to both Ahmadinejad and Khamenei, but that he can convince the Iranians to use their influence on Sadr as well. Part of the reason that Sadr has been so quiet the last few years is that he realized that his future success in both Iraq and the region depends on his attaining his religious credentials. Thus, the young mullah has returned to the academies of Qom while his party plots its future political strategy.
Maliki is going to lean on Sadr and hope that he can get the Sadrist seats into a ruling coalition. This will mean a strongly pro-Iranian government in Baghdad. To be sure, the American’s are playing their cards at the moment as well. Statements from Allawi read almost like State Department press releases. Everyone has a horse in this race, and once again, the self-determination of ordinary Iraqis is being sacrificed for political machination and regional gamesmanship.