When all the wrangling is over, when the posts are divvyed out, it is clear that significant ministries within the government of Iraq are going to be headed by Sadrists. Their block won 40 seats in the election, the largest within the Shiite led Iraqi National Alliance (INA), and Nouri al-Maliki would not be able to form a government without the Sadrists support. Shiite Cleric Ammar al-Hakim, who heads the block, recently said they’re after 7 ministries – transportation, education, justice, health, housing, electricity, and a ministry of state – in addition to the powerful Deputy Prime Minister post. They’re certainly not lacking in ambition.
While they may not get 7, even the U.S. government is acknowledging that Sadrists are going to be running significant ministries when all is said and done. With the base of their backing coming from poor, historically marginalized Shiites, they’re likely to end up with a series of service oriented ministries. Health, housing, education, transport. If that's the case, then there will be an opportunity to help solidify the Sadrists commitment to political participation.
The armed wings of the Sadrist movement have committed truly grotesque human rights abuses in the past, and these shouldn't be papered over. But its leadership has the chance to show they have matured into a viable political organization. The Sadrists will have to govern, and the U.S. should make real, and highly visible, efforts to help them do so effectively. It’s another chance to test the thesis that extremism can be tempered by the heavy responsibilities of governing (“uneasy lies the head that wears a crown”), and it’s in both U.S. and Iraqi interests that it goes well. Because a return to the norm for the Sadrists – who have known nothing but fierce, violent opposition in recent memory – would be a disaster.
There is a real risk that the Sadrists might not find national government to their liking. With its inherent compromises, frustrations, and sluggishness, governing lacks the romance and glamour of an uncompromising armed struggle and martyrdom. It’s a daunting new world, and the relative clarity and authority of uncompromising fiefdoms in northeast Baghdad, Najaf, or Basra could look pretty appealing. If the Sadrists' experiment in national government doesn’t go well, the alternative is a disaster for Iraq (and the U.S.).
What’s more, if the U.S. makes every effort to assist these ministries, it can deny the Sadrists any excuse should they prove ineffective (a concern Toby Dodge outlines at the bottom of this CSM article). If the Sadrists are going to go it alone, the U.S. should take all steps to make clear that was a deliberate choice on their part, and let Iraqis see if they like the results. It’s the best chance the U.S. has at maintaining influence, and would at least make democratic accountability more likely. Moreover, it would lend legitimacy to any crackdown on the Mahdi army or other militant Shiite wings by Gov. of Iraq and U.S. forces.
There may be a real moral challenge in where to draw the line on support. Fundamental human rights might be put at risk as the Sadrists govern, especially the rights of women, in which case the U.S. would have to rethink its position. Or if they pursue a Hezbollah model, with “disciplined political and armed wings as well as strong social programs,” a state within a state of sorts, that would require a recalculation. But none of this is yet decided. While it might be satisfying to shun and isolate the Sadr-run ministries from the outset, we should all be hoping they do well, and the U.S. should be doing what it can to make that a reality.