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Sadr Talks Big to US Ambassador

While Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's popularity wanes, radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr looks to boost his own appeal with harsh words for the United States.
Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr speaks to the media during a visit to the Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad January 4, 2013.  REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani (IRAQ - Tags: RELIGION) - RTR3C3HO

Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr said June 30 that the future Iraqi prime minister, set to be appointed in 2014, will not deal with the White House, and that any candidate of his movement will “stand against the occupier.”

Sadr’s remarks came in response to a June statement by US Ambassador to Iraq Robert Stephen Beecroft, in which he stated, “The prime minister of the great state of Iraq has to deal with [the US].”

Beecroft told a number of journalists, including an Al-Monitor reporter, on June 26, “Talk about the possibility that Iraq's next prime minister might refuse to deal with the US — if he is affiliated with a party that refuses to deal with the US — is a theoretical matter.”

Beecroft stressed, “Regardless of who will be the prime minister of Iraq, it is hard for a prime minister of an important country such as Iraq not to join or work with the US.”

In a statement distributed to the media, Sadr said, “We will nominate as a candidate a prime minister who loves Iraqis and whom they love. He will not be hated by non-believers, and will show modesty in dealing with believers. He will be one of them.” He continued, “The prime minister ... will not deal with the unrighteous occupier, in order to give Iraq prestige, independence, dignity and honor.”

"The Americans," he said, "will not be able to manipulate the fate, rights, wealth and souls in Iraq again.” Sadr then addressed the US ambassador, saying, “Your threat will not be useful. Deal with us however you wish ... We will deal with [the Americans] in ways that you have never seen before.”

The Mahdi Army, an armed branch of Sadr's movement, engaged in bloody armed combat with American forces from 2004 to 2007. However, things changed after Sadr decided to freeze his fighters’ activity and senior officials close to the movement confirmed in 2008 that the movement would turn to political action. Yet Sadr's recent remarks directed at the US ambassador indicate that he desires to rise to power after the 2014 parliamentary elections.

Tariq Kikhany, a leading figure of Sadr's movement, said, “Our political weight grew from 2003 until the April 2013 provincial elections." In a phone interview with Al-Monitor, Kikhany said, “For the 2006 to 2010 term, the movement won 30 seats. The number of seats, however, increased to 41 for the current term.”

The leader also said, “In the 2009 local elections, the Sadr movement won 32 seats, while this number increased to 59 in the April 2013 elections." Kikhany predicted that “the Sadr movement will obtain 70 seats in the 2014 legislative elections.”

"This number of seats qualifies the Sadr movement to take over the management of the Iraqi state. The prime minister position, as well as many other senior positions in the country, will be part of the movement’s share of power,” Kirkhany said.

Sadr competes with current Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for the position of head of the government. The Sadrists believe that Maliki's popularity has decreased in the provinces, particularly since he lost several seats — nearly 59 seats in 12 provinces — in local provincial councils, compared to the number of seats Maliki won in the 2009 local elections.

Sadr is trying to shape a more flexible public opinion to gain from Maliki's decline in popularity. While the opposition is trying to restrain Maliki from running for a third term, the Sadrist movement promised that a law will be enacted to limit the prime minister to two terms.

Jawad al-Jubouri, a Shiite MP affiliated with the Sadrist parliamentary bloc, said, "The bloc demanded the enactment of a law to limit the terms of the presidencies, as required by the phase that Iraq is currently experiencing, in order to ensure that dictatorship is not established in the political system and to preserve the peaceful transfer of power.”

Observers say that the Sadr movement has not spoken this way before. Jubouri told Al-Monitor, “The Sadr movement will not abandon the law to limit the terms of the presidencies, even if the 2014 legislative elections brought to the post of prime minister a figure from the movement.” 

Ali Abel Sadah is a Baghdad-based writer for both Iraqi and Arab media. He has been a managing editor for local newspapers as well as a political and cultural reporter for more than 10 years.

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