Cole On the Dynamic Between al-Maliki and al-Sadr

As premier loses stature, radical cleric is gaining it
By Juan Cole
Article Launched: 04/22/2007 01:45:27 AM PDT

Radical young Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr may have become more important in hiding than he was when he could dare come out in public.

On Monday he pulled his six Cabinet ministers out of the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and on the same day sponsored a demonstration 20,000 strong against a major provincial government. The previous week, he had brought hundreds of thousands of Iraqis into the streets of An-Najaf and other cities to protest Maliki’s refusal to demand the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Can the Maliki government survive the defection of a major Shiite faction?

In the wake of the departure of Sadr’s ministers, rumors swirled in Baghdad that Maliki was considering resigning. He was said to be under siege by the leaders of the other parties in his coalition, who want the posts for themselves, and who were engaging in vicious infighting that threatened to tear the alliance apart. Plagued by American demands that his government meet specific benchmarks on national reconciliation and harried by gruesome mass bombings that left hundreds dead this week in Baghdad, Maliki seems more in danger of becoming increasingly irrelevant than of being overthrown.

A member of parliament from another branch of Maliki’s Dawa party, Abdul-Karim al-Unaizi, admitted to the Associated Press that “the withdrawal will affect the performance of the government, and will weaken it.”

Maliki is said to be considering the appointment of technocrats in place of the ministers who resigned. But in the Iraqi system, a prime minister gains support from lawmakers by bestowing ministries on their parties, and technocrats would bring Maliki no support. He is already heading a minority government and can often not muster a quorum for a meeting of parliament.

The Sadrists are the second major Shiite party to withdraw from the ruling coalition, leaving Maliki with fewer than 100 direct supporters in a parliament of 275, and making him deeply dependent on other political forces, especially the Kurds. The Sunni Arab delegates in parliament, under severe pressure from American forces convinced they are linked to the insurgents, have also begun talking about withdrawing their ministers from the national unity cabinet. At any moment, 50 parliamentarians can initiate a vote of no confidence against Maliki, though for now that possibility seems remote.

Nassar al-Rubaie, leader of the Sadrist bloc in parliament, pledged last week that his party, which has not withdrawn from the legislature, “will have a major role in working on a timetable [for withdrawing foreign troops] in parliament.”

He indicated that the Sadrists will work the members of parliament in hopes of forcing Maliki to say exactly when he expects foreign forces to leave Iraq. Last fall, 131 legislators signed off on a resolution demanding a timetable, which then went to a parliamentary committee. Were 138 legislators to endorse such a step, Maliki might have to acquiesce or risk being toppled.

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