Anthony Shadid, who saw the rise of the Sadrists in 2003-4 clearer than anyone, has a great piece about their political return in Iraq’s parliamentary election. Shadid reports that the Sadrists will win “more than 40 seats,” a figure even Sadr’s Shiite rivals concede is true, thereby tipping the balance of the Shiite coalition in their favor. Why? “[A]n unprecedented discipline” and established popular support.
Moqtada Sadr himself is quoted by Shadid as saying, “This will be a door to the liberation of Iraq, to driving out the occupier and to something else which is important, serving the Iraqi people.” U.S. diplomats apparently still have minimal contacts with Sadr, so it’s difficult to tell what’s more than nationalist rhetoric. Indeed, to understand the durability of the Sadrists — after they opted to sit out the surge following Petraeus’ forces establishment in Sadr City and then getting basically smacked by Maliki’s Army in Basra – it’s important to distinguish the Sadrists from Sadr. Because whatever you think of Sadr, the Sadrists are a pragmatic bunch. In The Gamble, Tom Ricks recounts a quiet 2007 negotiation between David Kilcullen and a Sadr lieutenant. The Sadrists said they wouldn’t negotiate without a date for the U.S. to withdraw. What date did the guy have in mind? “Well, December 2012.”
In short, these guys are much more supple and pragmatic then they get credit for being. They entrench their ties to their people by the mundane but crucial work of collecting garbage as much as turning the Health Ministry into a torture chamber for Sunnis. When I wrote my ‘Rise of the Insurgents’ series, I saved an installment for Sadr, because he demonstrated almost textbook insurgent concerns about catering to his people’s material needs while being very prepared to fight hard. I don’t think it will be an insult to say that in a sense, the counterinsurgents and the Sadrists probably shared an ironic sense of kindred spirits than did most of Iraq’s combatants. R. Kelly could write quite the Sadrist ballad.
That said, the Sadrist parliamentary rise will almost certainly constrain Maliki from any impulse he might feel to renegotiate the SOFA. Maliki has only ever gingerly and reluctantly hinted at a prospect that has more constituency within Washington think tanks than either Baghdad, the White House or the State Department. Even still, the Sadrists holding as many seats as the Kurds creates a new objective political constraint on an already-dubious proposition. And the terms of the SOFA align pretty closely with the timeline that Sadrist spelled out to Kilcullen.
Update, 10:02 a.m.: Kim Kagan’s think-tank, the Institute for the Study of War, is emailing around this seat count:
Currently, Prime Minister Maliki’s State of Law coalition is in the lead with roughly 75-82 seats.
Ayad al-Allawi’s Iraqiyyah list is in second with 66-74 seats.
The predominantly-Shi’a Iraqi National Alliance is in third with roughly 58-63 seats.
Kurdistani List is in fourth with roughly 33-36 votes.
If Sadr’s got 40 of the Alliance’s seats, that’s just dominating, and it means ISCI got marginalized at a time when it was projecting strength to anyone who’d listen. And if the Sadrists got more seats outright than the Kurdish coalition, that’s huge.