Mercurial Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr once again has people guessing about his next move.
Officially, the young religious leader -- whose summer standoff with U.S. troops in Najaf threatened to spark a Shiite rebellion across Iraq -- says he’s not participating in next month’s national elections. Supporters, however, say he has dozens of stealth candidates on various slates.
Sadr has reportedly told other Shiite leaders in private that he’ll support their push for the vote to be held as scheduled, on Jan. 30, but has also signaled to Sunni Muslims who came to his aid in August that he favors postponement.
He claims no interest in running for office, but recently opened a political affairs bureau in the Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City, which some see as the first step in a possible move to separate his religious profile from a political career.
It would be a risky strategy but one that leaves his options open no matter what happens at the polls.
“I suspect that Muqtada Sadr has a plan to position himself for whichever way he wants to go,” said a Western diplomat in Baghdad, speaking on condition of anonymity.
If the election is held successfully, his under-the-radar participation ensures he’ll still have a toehold in the new government. If it fails, Sadr can say he knew it would not work out.
“His own calculation is that the election won’t go full-scale, so he wants to be safe until the storm passes,” said Hassan Bazaz, a political analyst at Baghdad University. “He’s picked a middle way. He’s playing it smart.”
After attracting the support of thousands of young men by tapping into anti-American sentiment, Sadr is mindful that his popularity is based in large part on his role as an opposition figure, political experts say.
If he joins the government or aligns with the Shiite religious establishment, Sadr risks being swallowed up in the mainstream and losing his claim of representing the poor and oppressed. “He knows he’s a phenomenon,” Bazaz said. “He knows if he joins the [leading religious council in Najaf], he’ll have a secondary role, if he has one at all. At the same time, he can’t oppose them because he knows his power has its limits.”
Earlier this month, Sadr said he might support elections, but only if U.S. troops promised to leave Iraq immediately after the vote, a condition that most agreed was unrealistic.
But in a nod to Sunni leaders, Sadr linked the election to U.S. offensives in Fallouja and other rebel centers.
“I will not enter myself in something that is futile,” Sadr said in a public statement. “The occupier is bombing our cities, city after city, but no one speaks out....What is the higher priority? Helping the cities or elections?”
Given Sadr’s large following, particularly among young, disenfranchised Shiites, several large political parties are courting his support.
“He’s got his own power,” said Saad Jawad, who heads the political bureau of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the leading Shiite party, which is sponsoring a joint slate of candidates known as the United Iraqi Alliance.
When the alliance approached Sadr’s office for candidates for its slate, it received the names of 20 mid-level followers and no clear word on whether the cleric approved of their participation. “We’ve heard different stories about that,” Jawad said.
Still, the alliance says it has about 20 Sadr representatives on its list, or nearly 13% of the slate.
“At a minimum, they’ve promised us they won’t oppose us and won’t actively encourage people not to vote,” Jawad said.
Sunnis, who wielded enormous political power under Saddam Hussein despite their minority status, have received different signals from Sadr’s camp.
From what I understand, they support a postponement,” said Adnan Pachachi, a leading Sunni politician who heads his own slate.
Sadr’s constituents don’t seem to have a much clearer understanding. “We will follow the orders of whether we should vote or not, but so far there are no orders,” said Hussein Abbas, 32, a laborer in Sadr City.
Ali Yasiri, the former editor of a pro-Sadr newspaper, Al Hawza, says he is one of scores of Sadr loyalists who are running on various slates. The U.S. confrontation with the radical cleric was sparked in part by the closure of Al Hawza in March. Now Yasiri is running on the Independent Nationalist Elites and Cadres slate.
“Officially, there is no slate for the Sadr movement, but we have 180 candidates on our list, all of them graduates of Sadr’s Friday prayer school,” Yasiri said.
The covert participation may be a face-saving strategy. Like every other political party in Iraq, Sadr’s movement has never been tested by an election.
“The risk of entering the process is that -- depending upon how many votes you get -- it shows how strong or weak your base is,” Jawad said.
Sadr representatives in Najaf and Sadr City declined to discuss their strategy.
“Our stand is clear from the beginning, to suspend our participation unless there are orders from the leader, Muqtada Sadr,” said Fadhil Sharih, an official in Sadr’s Najaf office.
The U.S. is watching closely. If Sadr does not join the political process, he remains a long-term threat, particularly given his ability to muster hundreds of young men to fight and die for his cause.
Sadr agreed to disband his Al Mahdi militia in August, but there is no guarantee he will not attempt to rearm his followers.
U.S. officials, though, are hopeful that he has disavowed organized violence, at least until the election is over.
“He has put a foot into politics,” according to the Western diplomat. “The situation of relative quiescence will last until after the election. I don’t think we’ll see any Sadr violence erupt until after then.”
Times special correspondents Raheem Salman and Saif Rasheed in Baghdad contributed to this report.