Sadr plots new steps to gain influence in Iraq's fall voting

BAGHDAD-- Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr, foe of the United States' presence in Iraq, announced a strategy Sunday for influencing Iraq's fall elections, including backing independents, technocrats and tribal figures.

The October provincial elections are seen by U.S. congressional leaders as an important benchmark of the country's political progress, and American officials hope they show evidence of democracy's spread from Baghdad into the 18 provinces.

Sadr's latest approach appears to be an effort to ensure that he gets some representation in provincial governments. But by not running candidates directly under the Sadr banner, he may hope to avoid blame for a poor showing.

Speaking through aides, Sadr left the meaning of his strategy ambiguous, possibly to gauge popular and governmental reaction to the electoral approaches. It's also a way to try to cast himself as a moderate leader, despite years of militancy.

Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group said, "Sadr has been involved in a spring cleaning of his inchoate movement to turn it into something more powerful and something he can control."

Sadr, who's believed to be studying Islam in Iran, hasn't been seen in Iraq for months. But the controversial cleric made news last week when he divided his Mahdi militia into two groups: one an authorized small pool of armed combatants to attack American troops and a much larger one whose resistance to the U.S. occupation is aimed at showing "soft" power through cultural, religious and ideological means.

After a first rush of democratic enthusiasm, parliamentary elections in 2005 led to a central government bogged down in partisan and sectarian political bickering. Sadr, with tens of thousands of followers, won 30 of 275 seats in the parliamentary voting. However, he and others contended the elections were faulty because they were tied to sectarian quotas.

One of his spokesmen, Sheik Salah al Obaidi, told McClatchy that Sadr followers won't run as Sadrists. "We won't have certain lists to work with during the next elections," he said. "We want (candidates) to be a kind of mixture from tribal figures and technocrats," as well as independents and Sadr followers.

With competing versions of what he said about elections appearing in the Western press, Sadr's leadership has recently appeared erratic.

"There has been much grumbling about his lack of clear leadership and enigmatic directions," said Vali Nasr, author of "The Shia Revival," speaking from Basra. "If there is a strategy behind his approach, it is one of fence-sitting."

As for his decision to divide his Mahdi army into armed and noncombatant factions, Iraqi Maj. Gen. Mohammed al Askari was almost dismissive at a press conference. Asked about Sadr's action, he said: "Regardless of their background, we deal with all outlaws and terrorist organizations on an equal basis. We hold them accountable to the law."

Although his near-term strategies may be unclear and confusing, there's little doubt about Sadr's long-term goal, said Hiltermann: "His strategy is not to confront the Americans, but to wait out their departure."

Tharp reports for the Merced (Calif.) Sun-Star.