U.S. tested by vic­tory in Iraqi elec­tion of al-Sadr

The Mercury News Weekend - - NEWS -

WASHINGTON » For years dur­ing the long U.S. oc­cu­pa­tion of Iraq, Muq­tada al-Sadr was an in­tractable foe, blamed by the Pen­tagon for hundreds of deaths of Amer­i­can ser­vice mem­bers, as well as atroc­i­ties against Iraqi civil­ians.

But his sur­prise lead in Iraq’s par­lia­men­tary elec­tion may force Amer­i­can of­fi­cials into a new, un­fa­mil­iar re­la­tion­ship with a one-time foe, who rode to vic­tory on a plat­form that called for at­tack­ing Iraq’s en­demic cor­rup­tion and oust­ing Iran, in ad­di­tion to the U. S. mil­i­tary, from Iraq.

By any ac­count, al- Sadr’s pos­si­ble role as king­maker af­ter the week­end elec­tion will com­pli­cate the U. S. mil­i­tary mission, which now con­sists largely of train­ing and mine-clear­ing in parts of the coun­try that have been wrested back from the Is­lamic State mil­i­tants.

Asked Tues­day whether he was up­set by al- Sadr’s vic­tory, De­fense Sec­re­tary James N. Mat­tis ig­nored the ques­tion.

“The Iraqi peo­ple had an elec­tion. It’s a demo­cratic process at a time when peo­ple, many peo­ple, doubted that Iraq could take charge of them­selves. So we will wait and see the re­sults — the fi­nal re­sults of the elec­tion,” said Mat­tis, who com­manded Marines as a gen­eral in Iraq’s An­bar prov­ince dur­ing some of the most vi­o­lent years of the Iraq war.

“And we stand with the Iraqi peo­ple’s de­ci­sions.”

His com­ments echoed sim­i­lar non­com­mit­tal state­ments across the ad­min­is­tra­tion, in­clud­ing the State Depart­ment and Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil.

“We are very well aware of Muq­tada al- Sadr and his back­ground and his po­si­tions now,” State Depart­ment spokes­woman Heather Nauert said when asked about con­cerns over al-Sadr’s vic­tory.

Some U. S. of­fi­cials be­lieve that al- Sadr, a 44-year- old Shi­ite cleric, is now less vir­u­lently an­tiAmer­i­can than he was in 2003, when his mili­tia, the Mahdi Army, bat­tled forces of the U.S.-led coali­tion, set off bombs and at­tacked Sunni com­mu­ni­ties.

In one sig­nif­i­cant de­par­ture from his past, al-Sadr has been openly crit­i­cal of Iran, and even made a re­cent trip to Saudi Ara­bia, archri­val of Tehran.

That could mean that an Iraqi govern­ment with al-Sadr in it will not nec­es­sar­ily dis­rupt Iraqi co­op­er­a­tion with the Pen­tagon against Is­lamic State.

Any un­ease on the U. S. side, sev­eral an­a­lysts said, is likely to be coun­ter­bal­anced by al- Sadr’s call for shrink­ing Iran’s in­flu­ence in Bagh­dad’s Shi­ite- dom­i­nated govern­ment — an­other long­time U.S. goal.

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