Sadr bloc holds mock vote on Iraq prime minister

Men crowded small metal tables in outdoor tents and checked off their choice for prime minister. Among the options were the incumbent, Nouri Maliki, and his main rival, Iyad Allawi.

Iraq held parliamentary elections less than a month ago. But the unofficial balloting held across the country Friday was less about who will rule the country than a demonstration of the staying power of Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr’s populist movement.

Backers of Sadr, who organized the vote, said they hoped it would allow ordinary Iraqis to have a say as Maliki, Allawi and other political figures bargain over the formation of the next government. The tussle for positions is increasing tensions and stoking fears of a return to sectarian violence.

Sadr also has a direct interest in the political competition: With Maliki and Allawi in a virtual dead heat, Sadr’s group is in a position to play kingmaker. And the vote could well preview his long-term goal. If other major parties fracture and fall into disarray and Sadr can keep his core leadership intact, he could muscle them aside and run the country in a few years’ time when the Americans are gone.

In addition to Maliki and Allawi, other choices on the ballot at a polling station in Baghdad’s Sadr City district, a Sadr bastion, were Vice President Adel Abdul Mehdi; former Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari; and Jaffar Sadr, the son of one of the founders of Maliki’s Islamic Dawa Party.

The Sadr organization left an empty box on the ballot for voters to write in their own candidate, which most did at the voting center, next to an office for Sadr’s organization. Anyone, no matter their political affiliation, was free to vote and choose whomever they wanted.

Thousands gathered to pray in the afternoon, waving paper Iraqi flags and taking refuge from the heat under umbrellas emblazoned with the logos of cigarette brands. The referendum ends Saturday. It was unclear when results would be announced.

“We saw the need to let the street participate in choosing [the prime minister] in order that a message reaches the political blocs that the street is able to choose, while the political blocs are unable to do so,” said Amir Kinani, who led Sadr’s slate in the parliamentary campaign.

Though some of the parliamentary results are still being disputed, Maliki’s and Allawi’s factions each won about 90 seats. Sadr’s movement holds at least 38 seats.

Sadr’s anti-U.S. group’s militia led two uprisings against American troops in 2004, and was accused of organizing death squads targeting Sunni Arabs during Iraq’s civil war. It declared a cease-fire in 2007, and in 2008 was the subject of a crackdown by Maliki.

Kinani and other Sadr backers predict their movement will outlast political rivals, many of whom came back to the country after the U.S.-led invasion of 2003. Many voters here said they had written in the names of Sadr candidates for prime minister and talked of the day when their movement would dominate its rivals.

“The Sadrists are trying to reflect the reality of the people,” said Muslim Abu Mohammed, a civil servant who added that he hoped in the future there would be a prime minister from the Sadr organization. “God willing, this is what we seek and want because they are the voice of justice.”

Sadr’s bloc has even created its own version of a political war room. It called its command center “the Machine” and established 16 offices around the country to ensure their supporters voted for designated candidates on election day.

Ahmed is a Times staff writer.