The surprise victory by Sadr’s political alliance Sairoon in a parliamentary election last week has put Washington into an awkward position. His Mehdi Army militia fought violent battles against U.S. troops after Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003.
Despite their past enmity, Washington and Sadr, an Iraqi nationalist, agree on their opposition to Iran’s deep influence in Iraq, where it arms, trains and funds Shi’ite militias and nurtures close ties with many politicians.
Dhiaa al-Asadi, a top aide to the cleric, said U.S. officials had used intermediaries to initiate contact with members of his Sairoon alliance.
“They asked what the position of the Sadrist movement will be when they come to power. Are they going to reinvent or invoke the Mahdi Army or reemploy them? Are they going to attack American forces in Iraq,” he told Reuters.
But according to Asadi there was no question of another Mahdi Army, which Sadr said he disbanded in 2008.
“There’s no return to square one. We are not intending on having any military force other than the official military force, police forces and security forces,” Asadi said.
Sadr cannot be prime minister himself since he did not run in the election, but has been meeting the leaders of other blocs and setting conditions on his support for candidates for prime minister. He says he wants someone who rejects sectarianism, foreign interference and corruption in Iraq.
Sairoon’s success could turn out to be a setback for Tehran and a boon for the United States, which seems happy to forget its past gripes with Sadr.
“We remain open to meet and work with the government that is formed and given that Sairoon won the plurality of seats and they’ll certainly make up a part of this government,” said a U.S. official, who was speaking on condition of anonymity.
“The U.S. is eager and willing to meet with a variety of people who will be involved in the government and Sadr will be a player in that.”
The United States is believed to have some 7,000 troops in Iraq now, though the Pentagon has only acknowledged 5,200 troops. They are mostly training and advising Iraqi forces.
Sadr, long seen by Iraqi and U.S. officials as an unpredictable maverick, made his surprise comeback by tapping popular resentment towards Iran and anger the Tehran-backed political elite in Baghdad which some voters say is corrupt.
“His political views seem to vary, to put it kindly,” said another U.S. official involved in the effort to understand what Sadr is doing. “At this point, we don’t know what he really wants.”