October 17, 2009 in Nation/World

Anti-U.S. cleric gets followers to polls

Sadrists become activists to add to parliament seats
Liz Sly Tribune Newspapers
 
Associated Press photo

An Iraqi man chants anti-U.S. slogans during Friday prayers in the Shiite stronghold of Sadr City in Baghdad on Friday.
(Full-size photo)

BAGHDAD – The Shiite movement loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr may seem an unlikely standard bearer for democracy in the new Iraq.

It owes fealty to a leader whose stature derives from his religious lineage. It boycotted Iraq’s first democratic election. And its Mahdi Army militia was held responsible for much of the mayhem that reigned a few years back.

But on Friday, the Sadrists held Iraq’s first primary election to choose candidates in January’s crucial nationwide elections.

The exercise came in response to an instruction from Muqtada al-Sadr himself, who has been living the life of a virtual recluse in the Iranian city of Qom since 2007. He is reported to be studying to become an ayatollah, and has vowed not to return to Iraq until the last of the American “occupiers” has left, yet his influence over his followers remains intact.

At a polling station in the Sadrist stronghold of Sadr City, throngs of voters, many of them noisily chanting al-Sadr’s name, lined up to cast ballots for one of 329 candidates for slots on the Sadrist slate in Baghdad province.

“I voted because Sayed (master) Muqtada al-Sadr ordered me to,” said Khadamiya Jawad, 34, after writing her candidate’s name on a ballot paper in a covered booth and dipping her finger in indelible ink. “And also because I want to choose my own representative.”

Signs proclaiming “The Primary Election for the Sadrist Movement” hung on the walls alongside lists of the candidates’ names and portraits of al-Sadr.

Some 400 polling stations and more than 800 candidates across Iraq participated, and a central committee will vet the results and decide on a final list of candidates. Exactly how many candidates will be chosen is not known, because Iraqi legislators still have not agreed on the details of the January election.

But it is now clear Sadrists intend to embrace the upcoming national vote, after adopting a decidedly ambivalent attitude to elections in 2005 and last January.

The Sadrists aim to increase their current share of 30 out of parliament’s 275 seats to become the largest bloc, which would give them the right to name the prime minister, said Hazem Araji, a senior Sadrist official.

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