Once again, Muqtada al Sadr may help the United States snatch success from the jaws of defeat in Iraq.

Iraqi prime minister Nouri al Maliki’s announcement that he will “meet with Iraqi political leaders by the end of the month to get their opinions on whether some U.S troops should remain in the country after December” shows, by Iraqi standards, remarkable foresight and advanced planning. Normally, major Iraqi political negotiations begin at the eleventh hour and last well beyond any deadline.

While it’s a fool’s game to try to predict an outcome, there is one fact which binds Maliki’s “mainstream” Shiites, Iyad Alawi’s Sunni bloc, and the Kurdish factions together: fear and loathing of the rabble-rousing Sadr. Upon returning from several years of “self-imposed” exile in Iran – which the “firebrand” cleric chose after two uprisings by his Mahdi Army militia were badly defeated – Sadr declared, “We are still fighters,” and has threatened attacks if U.S. forces remain in Iraq past 2011. In April, Sadrists took to the streets in Baghdad and Najaf. Sadr also improved his standing by ostentatiously devoting himself to acquiring greater religious authority by studying, during his exile, at Qom. And Sadr seems to have bettered his relations with Iraq’s leading cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, though by how much is difficult to measure.

While other Iraqi factions would, in the abstract, also be happy minimizing American military presence, they have no interest in sharing power with Sadr or adopting any of his populist measures for distributing oil revenues. Indeed, the ability of Iraq to attract investment to rebuild its energy economy is inversely proportional to Sadr’s political power. Additionally, Sadr’s ties with Iran don’t make him more attractive to Maliki, Alawi, or the Kurds. These parties have plenty to squabble over without Sadr’s help.

Thus it’s pretty useful to have the United States around to do the dirty work, such as a recent raid Sadrist headquarters in Diyala Province. It will be interesting to see whether the records seized provide evidence of activity in the region by operatives of Iranian Republican Guard Corps.

Sadr’s ambitions also provide an opportunity to the Obama administration, though it’s not clear that they’re in the mood to exploit it, even after pulling off the successful bin Laden raid. But Sadr could put them back in business.

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