That the Sunni-backed al-Iraqiya List and the Kurds want to oust al-Maliki is understandable: The prime minister has gained a disproportionate amount of power at al-Iraqiya's expense, and he is determined to restrict the Kurds' political and economic autonomy. But al-Sadr's movement is part of the Shiite parliamentary bloc that helped fellow Shi'i al-Maliki gain a second term in office. The movement also holds several seats in al-Maliki's Cabinet.
A Shiite Legacy
The reason al-Sadr has seemingly crossed sectarian lines and joined the Sunnis and Kurds against al-Maliki can be explained by the history of al-Sadr's group and its long-term ambitions. The al-Sadr movement is a legacy of the well-respected and historically prominent al-Sadr family of Iraqi Shiite clerics. The family produced several grand ayatollahs, two of whom, including al-Sadr's father, were killed by the ousted Sunni-dominated Baathist regime. With 40 of the 159 parliamentary seats, the al-Sadrites constitute the largest party in the current Shiite alliance. Their movement remained in Iraq during Saddam Hussein's reign, when all other major Shiite parties went into exile. (This helps to explain al-Sadr's nationalist tendencies.) More important, the al-Sadr movement is very popular among poor Shia both urban and rural.
Al-Sadr's father-in-law, Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, was the ideological founder of Hizb al-Dawah (HD), Iraq's oldest Shiite Islamist movement and the parent group of all subsequent Iraqi Shiite Islamist trends. Al-Maliki leads the present incarnation of HD. From al-Sadr's point of view, al-Maliki and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, an HD offshoot led by the al-Hakim family, have deviated from the ideals of Shiite Islamism's founders. Due to his heritage and the fact that he leads the largest Shiite group, al-Sadr has long sought to assume control of the Shiite establishment, but it has remained in the hands of al-Maliki, who is supported by the al-Hakims.
Beginning in 2003 al-Sadr tried to better his political position through the use of his militia, the Mehdi Army. In early 2008 al-Maliki's security forces defeated the Mehdi Army, and the al-Sadrite movement was forced to transform the militia into a social movement as part of a negotiated settlement mediated by Iran — patron to both al-Maliki and al-Sadr. Since then al-Sadr has mostly embraced the political mainstream.
Despite leading the largest Shiite group in the country, al-Sadr has not been able to realize his aspirations of political leadership of Shia, and by extension the country, for several reasons.
First, his radical ideology prevented him from taking advantage of the opening the United States provided when it toppled the Baathist regime in 2003. Unlike most other Shiite Islamist factions that skillfully navigated between their status as Iranian proxies and American partners, al-Sadr opposed the invasion, and it was on bad terms with Iran after Saddam Hussein's fall. Furthermore, al-Sadr's movement lacked the organization needed to take advantage of its grassroots popularity. The result was that in the years he spent trying to use militancy to advance his goals, competing Shiite forces, most prominently al-Maliki, positioned themselves as the post-Baathist political and security establishment.
Being a less skilled politician than al-Maliki is not al-Sadr's only problem. Contrary to his claims, al-Sadr is not a religious leader; he lacks the clerical credentials. Over the past several years he has tried to establish himself as a cleric — but not in Iraq's main seminary in An Najaf. Instead he has spent a great deal of time in Qom, Iran's main center of religious learning. The Iranian regime is trying to develop him as a major proxy — a long-term project and one that is not without its problems. Al-Sadr is not interested in becoming a grand ayatollah. Rather, he wants enough recognition to be taken seriously in religious circles, which would augment his political power.
While working on his clerical credentials, al-Sadr has his eyes set on Baghdad. The al-Hakims are weakening, making al-Maliki the only obstacle al-Sadr faces in assuming political leadership of the Shia. The current situation, in which the Sunnis and the Kurds have turned against al-Maliki, is the best opportunity to assume power that al-Sadr has yet seen, which explains his alignment with Sunnis and Kurds in defiance of his Iranian patrons.
Al-Sadr knows that he needs Iranian support, but he also knows that Iran needs him — a fact that has emboldened him to continue opposing al-Maliki despite Iranian urging. From the Iranian perspective, a Shiite-dominated state led by al-Maliki is the best that they can hope to get, given the dynamics among Iraq's ethno-sectarian groups and the schisms within Shiism that Tehran is always struggling to balance. While Iran would want to see al-Maliki reined in, the Islamic republic is not in favor of seeing al-Maliki toppled since his ouster could lead to the collapse of the fragile Shiite-led arrangement.
Al-Sadr likewise does not want to see Shia's position weaken, but he wants to take full advantage of the uproar against al-Maliki to enhance his partisan position. Put differently, al-Sadr is trying to use the power struggle among the Sunnis, Shia and Kurds to position his movement to replace al-Maliki's faction as the leader of the Shia and by extension of the new coalition government.
This will not be easy to attain. It would be very difficult to topple al-Maliki and still maintain the balance of power between the three ethno-sectarian groupings. Doing so would require a surgical approach — one that plucks al-Maliki out without collapsing the entire system.
At the very least it requires al-Maliki's HD party, his State of Law coalition and the wider Shiite bloc to agree to remove the incumbent prime minister and then agree on a replacement. Even if that were to happen, al-Maliki's replacement will come from HD — as was the case in 2006 when al-Maliki replaced Ibrahim Jaafari as HD chief and prime minister — and not the al-Sadrite movement. The internal balance of power is such that Shiite factions are unlikely to accept al-Sadr as their leader.
In addition, any new power-sharing agreement leading to the formation of a Cabinet will be a laborious process. In 2006, the formation of the first al-Maliki government took six months — the second govenrment took nine months to form in 2010. In both instances, U.S. troops were in Iraq. Now that the Iraqis are comparatively more independent, tampering with the arrangement entails a huge systemic risk, especially since al-Maliki has demonstrated that he will not hesitate to act outside legal bounds.
Al-Maliki's entrenched status is a function of his unrivaled control of the security forces and the intelligence, judiciary and civil bureaucracy; his ability to buy off Sunni elements with income from increasing crude exports; and his exploitation of the existing mistrust between Iraqi Arab Sunnis and Kurds. Al-Sadr is aware of these challenges, which is why his goal is not to topple al-Maliki's government and why the legislature has not produced a vote of no confidence. Instead, al-Sadr is using the current crisis to extract concessions from al-Maliki with the hope of increasing both his clout and the prime minister's dependency on his movement. He is trying to pressure al-Maliki into reaching out to him and offering to share some political power.
Al-Sadr has neither the skill set nor the desire to be prime minister. He would be content to have a status similar to that of Hezbollah chief Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, who has someone from his party serve as prime minister. (Of course, al-Sadr's movement no longer has an armed wing.) The Iranians are thus investing in al-Sadr for the long term, especially since his is a true Iraqi movement — the others were either created in or spent a great deal of time in exile. But Tehran has to cultivate al-Sadr with the knowledge that his aspirations are a risk for Iran's short-term goal of preserving the Maliki-led Shiite alliance.
Al-Sadr's statement that he does not want al-Maliki to have a third term as prime minister thus not only means that he is content to let his rival keep the premiership until the next parliamentary elections in 2014 but also that he is hoping his group will strengthen his position in the next two years. The al-Sadrites will continue to gain power within the Shiite bloc, but al-Sadr must increase his political and religious clout to attain his long-term goals.