On August 31, 2010 President Barack Obama made his speech about the end of combat operations in Iraq. In it he stated, "Iraq has the opportunity to embrace a new destiny, even though many challenges remain." One of those challenges was the utter lack of an Iraqi government following the country's March elections. Two arch-rivals, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of the State of Law Party and former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi of the al-Iraqiya party, won the majority of parliamentary seats (89 and 91, respectively, out of a total of 325), yet refused to work together to form a coalition government. Enter Joe Biden, because it's kind of "a big f'ing deal" when the country you are about to de-occupy has no functioning government. Less than a week after Obama's speech, in which he praised Iraq's opportunity while telling its leaders to form a government with an eye on "urgency," Biden made a personal trip to the war-torn country to get the parliamentary ball rolling. His proposal was to keep the power-hungry al-Maliki as prime minister while creating numerous new committees with various capacities. (Instead of power sharing, think power diffusing.) While al-Maliki would be prime minister, Allawi's al-Iraqiya party (which is supported heavily by Iraq's Sunni population) would hold certain powers in the new government, possibly with a veto clause.
While the deal was far from done, Washington expected the new government to form in the next few weeks, at which point Secretary Clinton would go over to Baghdad shake some hands. One senior official told the New York Times, "We don't really see what other option there is out there." Enter the radically anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
Al-Sadr leads a group of aptly named Sadrists. Part of a Shiite coalition named the Iraqi National Alliance, they won 70 parliamentary seats in March. Many Americans probably remember al-Sadr from his time leading his private Mahdi army against American troops following the invasion of Iraq. Al-Sadr is currently in Qom, Iran studying to become an ayatollah. His choice of country for his self-imposed exile is no mistake; while a strong Iraqi nationalist, al-Sadr wants a system of government similar to Iran, where Islamic clerics hold most of the power, but there are elections and a president.
While the history between al-Sadr and al-Maliki is spotty, the Times reported that the former has pledged to throw his parliamentary weight behind the latter. While al-Sadr will not bring all 70 parliamentary seats from the INA, he will bring enough to put al-Maliki in power should the Kurds (with 57 seats) follow through with their expected support of the prime minister.
It's obvious from an American point of view why this is a startling development. In addition to al-Sadr having openly fought American troops, he receives a lot of support from Tehran. In a political game which saw America send its vice president to Iraq to broker a deal, a reversal that favors Iranian interests (as an Iraqi government with a strong Sadrist influence does) is a worrisome development.
From an Iraqi standpoint, the alliance between the Shiite coalition of al-Sadr and some INA parties and the Shiite al-Maliki to form a strongly Shiite government, despite the Sunni-backed al-Iraqiya party winning a plurality of the vote in March, could strain sectarian relations. The party has already stated that they will not take part in an al-Maliki government, and a powerful Sunni governor has said that the country is "headed for a dictatorship" if al-Maliki stays in power. Given that Sunnis and Shiites were engaged in sectarian violence that amounted to civil war not three years ago, these developments are not beneficial to what is a very socially fragile state.
Back in early September, the Times brought up the possibility of the Shiite alliance that seems all but sealed at this point. "Which coalition prevails," they wrote, "will serve as a barometer on whether Iran or the United States has more prestige in an unsettled and still turbulent country." While combat operations may be coming to an end in Iraq (and the jury is still out on this one), the political three-way chess match between Iraq, Iran and the United States may be just beginning.