The men in black are back. They reappeared on Baghdad’s streets about a month ago, the day after a series of bombs ripped through Sadr City and other Shia districts, killing at least 60 people and wounding more than 100. Two of the devices exploded near offices run by followers of the hardline Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. In the ensuing weeks, bombings and ambushes have spread to markets, security posts, and other public areas across Iraq, leaving more than 100 dead on May 10 alone, in the year’s bloodiest single day yet. The attackers’ message was clear: we’ll do everything we can to restart the sectarian war and destabilize Iraq.
And by turning out in force, after nearly two years of keeping a low profile, Sadr’s black-clad militiamen are sending a clear reply: we will meet violence with more violence. The day after the Sadr City bombings, about two dozen of the cleric’s Mahdi Army enforcers gathered in small groups outside a mosque in northwest Baghdad’s Shaab district, a Sadrist stronghold. Many of them packed handguns visibly bulging beneath their shirts, leaving no doubt of their intentions. And although seeing the armed Sadrists in the streets may have comforted some Shiites, others were distraught. “This is a disaster,” said Muhanad Abdul Razzaq, a 43-year-old Shiite who owns a cell-phone shop in the Karrada neighborhood. “I did not leave Iraq in recent years; I had hoped that things would improve. But if [the militiamen] return, I will start thinking about leaving.”
The Mahdi Army’s leader has resurfaced as well. Physically, he’s in Iran’s holy city of Qum, where he’s been living in self-imposed exile for the past three years. But in terms of raw influence, Sadr is now the most powerful man in Iraq. Almost immediately after the March 7national elections, audience-seekers from Baghdad began arriving in Iran—a vice president, and even a personal envoy from Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki himself, together with senior representatives from every other major political bloc in Iraq. And they came bearing offerings: the prime minister’s envoy was ready to free Mahdi Army detainees in exchange for Sadr’s support, and the emissary representing Ayad Allawi, the candidate who had won the most votes, promised a generous array of ministerial postings. (Representatives from both the prime minister and Allawi’s bloc deny making these offers.) Almost three months after the balloting, the election’s official results have yet to be certified. But when that finally happens, it’s clear that Sadr will cast the deciding vote on Iraq’s next prime minister.
Sadr’s beard is streaked with gray now, but he hasn’t lost his fire in the four years since NEWSWEEK called him “the most dangerous man in Iraq.” “The military resistance will continue,” he warned in a recent interview with Al-Jazeera. “We are inside the political process, but I will deal with the politicians in a political way and with the nonpoliticians in a nonpolitical way.” He and his followers insist that his Mahdi Army will remain armed and ready to fight at least until the Americans get out of Iraq. “As long as there is this kind of occupation, we have a right to keep this wing,” says Sadrist spokesman Sheik Salah Obeidi.
At present the emphasis is on politics—and that’s enough to worry about. It looked like grounds for hope when Allawi’s nonsectarian Iraqiya list of candidates captured at least a slim plurality of seats in the March elections. Many observers saw it as a clear sign that Sunnis had finally decided to participate in the political process in a meaningful way. But that hope faded with the recent announcement by the Sadrist--dominated Iraqi National Alliance and Maliki’s State of Law coalition that they were joining forces, essentially forming a Shiite mega-coalition—a merger that Tehran has intensely lobbied for since even before the election.
Iraq’s Constitution gives the first shot at forming the new government to Allawi, as leader of the party that won the most seats. Still, the Maliki-Sadr coalition is scarcely inclined to let him have the votes he’ll need. Together they now control the single largest bloc of seats in the Iraqi Parliament, effectively shutting out Allawi’s Sunni partners from any serious role in the upcoming government. “The only alliance that we are scared of is one that is established on a sectarian basis, just like 2005,” says Taha Luhaibi, who ran on the Iraqiya ticket. “If such an alliance happened again, it would be a big shock for the Iraqi people.” The fear is a return to a broad, Sunni-led insurgency, an outcome that seemed unthinkable right after the vote.
We're not there yet. In fact, Maliki can't hope to form a new government without Sadr's help--and the Sadrists have a deep-rooted hatred of Maliki, remembering the bloody military offensives he approved against the Mahdi Army in Basra in 2007 and in Sadr City in 2008. Shortly after the elections the Sadrists held an unofficial referendum to decide who should be the next prime minister, and Maliki finished a miserable fourth, with 10 percent of the vote, behind former prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari; Moqtada's distant cousin (and brother-in-law) Jafar Sadr; and a Sadrist M.P. named Qusay al-Suhail. Moqtada himself mentioned the bad blood in his recent interview with Al-Jazeera. "We have negative ideas about Maliki," he said. "He refused to share the powers, as if he owned the whole government. This was wrong." If the Sadrists back Maliki at all, they're sure to demand major political concessions, including an agreement to leave the Mahdi Army alone.
That prospect particularly upsets women’s rights groups. They fear that the Sadrists may block their attempts to push through more progressive legislation on issues like divorce, child custody, and property ownership, and they decry the Sadrist militia’s record of violence. The Mahdi Army was blamed for the murder of dozens of women in Basra in 2007 and 2008. “If [the Sadrists] are ruling with this many seats, that means women have to hide once again,” says Yanar Mohammed, the president of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq. “Iraq will be a place where women have no rights and can be killed without any punishment for anybody.”
The Sadr list included a fair number of female candidates, but the activists say the Sadrist women were nothing but window dressing to lure secular voters. During the campaign, one female candidate from the Sadr list actually had two different election posters: the version for Baghdad’s middle- and upper-class neighborhoods showed the candidate without hijab, and the other, used in conservative Sadr strongholds, showed her wearing a headscarf.
As underhanded as that may sound, it shows how much the Sadrists have learned about American-style image management and market research. More than a year before the elections, they set up a seven-person committee to direct election strategy from a command center they called “the machine.” One committee member was chosen to dissect Iraq’s election law and figure out how they could work it to their best advantage.
The Sadrists built a database with information on voters in every province across the country. When they had established a broad sampling of voter preferences, mostly in Shia areas, they decided to put it to the test: they held a primary in 15 out of 18 provinces last fall. Roughly 400 polling stations were set up, and more than 800 candidates competed for the party’s backing. The primary enabled them to measure each candidate’s appeal, not only to their hard-core base but also to undecided voters. One particularly telling result: the Sadrists’ female candidates outperformed all other women at the polls. “They’ve played the game more cleverly and in a more disciplined way than others,” a Western diplomat in Baghdad said in an e-mail message, asking not to be named speaking on such a sensitive topic.
It remains to be seen whether the Sadrists’ interest in Iraqi public opinion will continue after the elections’ results are certified. As long as they remain armed, they will be able to disrupt the political process any time they choose, just like the organization on which the Mahdi Army is modeled—Lebanon’s Hizbullah. For now Sadr is biding his time in Qum, where he’s supposedly pursuing religious studies. Classes there are taught in Farsi, a language he doesn’t speak, so he’s said to take most of his instruction on CD. He keeps mostly to himself, and hasn’t said publicly what he plans to do when it’s time to form the new government. But without serious efforts to include the Sunnis in the political process, and to keep the Mahdi Army off the streets, Iraq seems headed for grim times once again.
With reporting from Hussam Ali and Iraqi staff in Baghdad