- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 8, 2010

BAGHDAD | The two front-runners vying to become Iraq’s next prime minister failed to get the support of an influential Shi’ite movement in results from a poll released Wednesday, further muddying the political situation after inconclusive March elections.

Instead, the bulk of supporters of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who has emerged as a kingmaker, said he should back Shi’ite politician Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who was interim prime minister from 2005 to 2006. Nearly as many cast ballots for one of Mr. al-Sadr’s relatives.

The Sadrists held the informal weekend poll after former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s secular bloc won just two seats more than incumbent Nouri al-Maliki’s coalition in March 7 parliamentary elections. With both sides far short of the majority needed to govern alone, the candidates now are scrambling to muster the support needed to form a government.

Mr. al-Sadr became key to those efforts after his followers won at least 39 seats in the 325-seat parliament, up 10 seats from their current standing. That makes them the largest bloc within the Iraqi National Alliance, a Shi’ite religious coalition that placed third in the race.

Al-Sadr spokesman Salah al-Obeidi announced the results of the poll but left open whether Mr. al-Sadr would follow the guidance of his supporters in the course of future negotiations, which are expected to take months, saying that “each event has its own way.”

The poll of al-Sadr supporters was widely viewed as a way for the cleric to give himself the opportunity to back someone other than Mr. al-Maliki, under the guise of following the people’s will.

Mr. al-Maliki and Mr. Allawi received only 10 percent and 9 percent of poll votes, respectively.

The results were hardly a ringing endorsement for Mr. al-Jaafari either, with Mr. al-Sadr’s relative Mohammed Jaffar al-Sadr receiving 23 percent of the vote, senior Sadrist politician Qusay al-Suhail receiving 17 percent, and a handful of others splitting the remainder of the ballots.

Mr. al-Sadr rose to prominence after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, forging a political dynasty based on the network and prestige of his father, a leading Shi’ite cleric killed by Saddam Hussein in 1999. His followers fought some of the bloodiest battles with U.S. forces and were blamed in some of the worst sectarian violence before they were routed by a series of U.S.-Iraqi offensives in 2008.

There has been deep enmity between the Sadrists and Mr. al-Maliki since the prime minister turned on Mr. al-Sadr’s powerful militia in 2008, despite receiving key support from Mr. al-Sadr in 2006 when he formed his government.

Winning Kurdish support could also be key in helping either Mr. al-Maliki or Mr. Allawi form the next government.

On Wednesday, a representative of Iraq’s Kurdish President Jalal Talabani met with the country’s most revered and politically influential Shi’ite leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Najaf for talks on the process of forming a new government.

As he emerged from the talks, Talabani adviser Fakhri Karim said the cleric had told him that he was pushing for all factions to be involved in the political process.

Mr. al-Sistani “stressed the necessity of the participation of all the parties in the political process without excluding any,” Mr. Karim told reporters without elaborating.

Violence has surged amid the struggle for power — most recently with a series of bombings Tuesday that killed 54 people and injured 187. More than 120 have been killed in a five-day spree of attacks in and around the capital, which Iraqi and U.S. officials have blamed on al Qaeda insurgents seizing on gaping security lapses created by the political deadlock.

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