Recently there were reports that the Sadrists were joining with other groups who opposed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to unseat him in a no confidence vote. While it is true that Moqtada al-Sadr and his followers have increased their public criticisms of Maliki recently, the bloc remains loyal to the premier. Their statements appear to be part of an attempt to maintain a populist image demanding better services and governance, while all the time backing the premier.
In April 2012, Iraqi papers began reporting that the Iraqi National Movement, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the Kurdish Coalition, and the Sadrists were going to depose Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. To dispel those stories the National Alliance met on April 21, and confirmed their support for the premier. Parliamentarians from Sadr’s Ahrar bloc came out of the conference saying that they were still a united list. Two weeks before that, the Sadrists were already saying that withdrawing confidence from Maliki would not be a good move. They repeated a remark made by the prime minister himself, that the parties that are complaining about being shut out of the government have their own ministries, and are part of the cabinet. These rumors were probably based upon statements from the Trend that have been increasingly critical of the prime minister’s job. However, those public statements overlook Sadr’s continued support for Maliki, and his refusal to confront him in any meaningful way.
For the last several months the Sadr Trend has seemingly acted in contradictory ways, criticizing the premier, while giving them his full support at the same time. In February 2012 for example, an interview with Sadr was published in Asharq al-Awsat, in which he accused Maliki of becoming a dictator, and trying to take credit for everything positive that happened in Iraq. Those remarks were repeated by a staff member at Sadr’s offices in Najaf. On March 13, a parliamentarian from the Ahrar bloc said that not only was Maliki acting unilaterally, and not consulting with anyone else when making decisions, but also compared him to Saddam Hussein. Finally, on April 8, Sadr responded to a question by one of his followers by issuing a statement that called the prime minister an autocrat once again. On other occasions however, the Sadr Trend has stood by Maliki. In December 2011, it defended the prime minister from his critics who said that he was behind the arrest of Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, when it was obvious that he was. The movement has also stated that Hashemi’s Iraqi National Movement has to follow the laws and courts in the vice president’s case, and that it rejected any political deal to solve the matter. These are all positions called for by Maliki’s State of Law list. On March 19, Sadrists held a demonstration in Basra called “Day of the Oppressed” that called for better services, jobs, and governance, plus fighting corruption. Earlier, the Trend had threatened to bring up those issues at the Arab League summit held in Baghdad, but instead backed down. The fact that it marched in Basra, far away from the capital showed their compliance with Maliki’s warning not to disrupt the regional conference. While the Sadrists have rhetorically bashed the prime minister more and more, in action they have stood by his side. The Trend wants to portray itself as standing up for the poor and oppressed in Iraq, and that obviously includes criticizing the government for its lack of providing basic necessities for the public, and its failure to adequately govern the country. At the same time, the Sadrists are a prominent party of the ruling coalition that they are criticizing. They hold important posts such as the Ministry of Planning that is supposed to help develop the country’s infrastructure and services. They were able to gain these positions by swinging their seats in parliament behind Maliki after the 2010 elections, so that he could hold onto his office for a second term. Since then, they have become some of his most ardent backers. That’s shown in the fact that they may have more critical words for the prime minister, but in action, they have not wavered in their support of him.
The critical statements by the Sadr Trend led some to believe that they would switch allegiances, and push for a no confidence vote to get rid of Prime Minister Maliki. A closer examination of their position showed that the movement was still in the premier’s camp, and backed him in his drive against his political rivals such as the Iraqi National Movement. This is critical, because as long as the Sadrists with their 40 seats in parliament stand with Maliki, there is virtually no way his opponents can gain enough seats in the legislature to depose him. The Sadrists continue to benefit from this position, with their slew of ministries that give them power over jobs and contracts, which can be used in their vast patronage system. That doesn’t mean that Sadr will stop trying to play both sides with his calling the prime minister a dictator every now and then to keep up his popular image. When it comes to anything substantive however, he has not shown any willingness to change his stance.
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