AP: Sadr planning to fill power vacuum from U.S. withdrawal with Shiite theocracy

Who could have seen this coming? Except everyone, I mean.

From hiding, possibly in Iran, U.S. nemesis and radical anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is believed to be honing plans to sweep into the power vacuum made all the more intense by news that his chief Shiite rival has lung cancer…

The strategy is based in part on al-Sadr’s belief that Washington will soon start pulling out troops or draw them down significantly, leaving behind a huge hole in Iraq’s security and political power structure, al-Sadr’s associates said….

“We gave the government a historic opportunity, but al-Maliki did not use it and that’s why we are preparing for a state led by the Sadrist movement,” said an al-Sadr political aide who is among those who spoke on condition of anonymity. “An Islamic state led by the Sadrists is our future,” he said…

An Iraq with ultra-radical Sadrist Shiites holding dominant power would seek to curb U.S. influence and bolster the influence of clergy-ruled Iran throughout Iraq and possibly outside its borders in the Sunni Arab heartlands of Saudi Arabia, Syria and Jordan.

It also could deepen the Shiite-Sunni divide and unleash a wave of Shiite militancy with offshoots joining forces with like-minded groups, such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah…

“We want an Islamic system,” said Nassar al-Rubaie, a Sadrist lawmaker. “We want a presidential system that will produce someone with a power similar to that of a Muslim caliph.

If you want to know what a Sadrist Iraq would look like, they say at one point, look no further than Sadr City. Which I guess means it’ll look like a toilet with garbage piled in the streets and masked goons with Kalashnikovs wandering around shouting at women to cover themselves.

It’s an unusually long piece for the AP which tells you how important they think it is. Note especially the section about Sadr aligning himself with Iran while SCIRI reorients itself towards the United States. I hadn’t thought of that at the time, but it helps explain the group changing its name a few weeks ago and moving away from Khamenei and towards Sistani for “spiritual guidance.” The dilemma now for the U.S. is which of Maliki’s likely successors is better able to check the Sadrists’ ambitions: Iyad Allawi, a secularist Shiite, or Adel Abdel Mahdi, the current Shiite VP and a top figure in SCIRI? Allawi wanted to eliminate Sadr in 2004 during the Najaf standoff; SCIRI doubtless wants to eliminate him now since the Mahdi Army is its chief rival for Shiite domination. If you pick SCIRI, you’re handing power to a gang — but a gang may be your best chance against the JAM. This also explains, I suppose, why Sadr has been making nice with the Sunnis lately. He expects the U.S. to try to put together an anti-Sadrist coalition in parliament when they replace Maliki and he’s trying to weaken it in advance by making deals with the Sunnis. That way if the new PM comes after him too hard, he can lean on his new friends to desert the coalition and topple the government. I can only wonder what he’s promised them in return for saying crap like this:

“We believe that the Sadrist movement is an independent and nationalist movement that we are ready to cooperate with,” said Omar Abdul-Sattar, a lawmaker from the Iraqi Islamic Party, the nation’s largest Sunni group.

The Sadrists are also admitting openly now that Sadr is, in fact, in Iran. Exit question: What’s more ominous, their association with Tehran or the fact that they’re no longer worried about Iraqis finding out about it?