- The Washington Times - Monday, November 14, 2005

BAGHDAD — Muqtada al-Sadr, whose followers are blamed for the recent killings of British troops in Basra, has emerged as the kingmaker expected to shape the country’s government for the next four years after the election on Dec. 15.

In recent days, a procession of Iraq’s most powerful political leaders has paid homage to the 31-year-old Shi’ite cleric. A year ago, the U.S. military wanted him captured dead or alive after a series of uprisings in the south. Iraqis widely consider the present government, a coalition of religious Shi’ite groups led by Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a failure because of its inability to improve the security situation or guarantee a steady supply of electricity and fresh water.

Sheik al-Sadr, who has more than 3 million supporters, is likely to hold the balance of power in the new parliament.

He boycotted the January election but has announced that his supporters will contest next month’s election.

On the weekend, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which is the dominant partner in the government, visited Sheik al-Sadr’s headquarters in Kufa to try to broker a deal.

Even Sunni politicians have begun negotiations with him, based on a shared anti-Americanism and demand for the withdrawal of all coalition troops.

Hussan Bazzaz, of the Center for Culture and Opinion, in Baghdad, said that by sending conflicting signals, Sheik al-Sadr was managing to enter politics while maintaining the image of an outsider on which his popularity largely lies.

“Muqtada is moving in a couple of different directions,” Mr. Bazzaz said.

“The last election only mattered for a couple of months. This time it determines power for four years. He is wise to become involved.”

It seems certain that, under whatever deal he cuts, a number of his followers will receive important Cabinet posts.

The Americans are insisting that it would not be a problem and say they will work with any legally elected leader in Iraq.

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