Nouri al-Maliki (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Jessica J. Wilkes via Wikipedia)

You’d think the American government would be happy that Iraq’s post-election political process — which has been a perpetual-immobility machine since last spring’s parliamentary elections — is finally starting to inch forward.

But you would be wrong.  In a story from Sunday with the bland headline of “U.S. Presses Iraqi Leaders to Broaden Coalition” (yeah, what else is new?), the New York Times buries this detail after the lead paragraph:

The administration has sought and received assurances that Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki will not offer the followers of the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr positions in charge of Iraq’s security forces in exchange for supporting Mr. Maliki’s bid for a second term in office, according to officials familiar with negotiations now under way.

. . . The Sadrists’ surprising support of Mr. Maliki, only weeks after opposing his nomination, raised alarms in Washington and gave new urgency to the efforts to persuade Mr. Maliki to include the country’s other main factions in a new government.

The article goes on to quote U.S ambassador James Jeffrey as saying the Obama administration wants “clarity on whether the Sadrist movement is a political movement or it is an armed militia which carries out political objectives through violent means.” In fact, though, the Sadrists could soon be both. [cont'd.]

Reports to this effect have been cropping up in the fine print of news stories for a few days now.  Last week, the Associated Press reported:

A leading member of al-Sadr’s movement said their demands include as many as six of the 34 Cabinet-level ministry posts, possibly the trade ministry and one post linked to security operations.

Meanwhile, Sam Dagher wrote for the Wall Street Journal:

A senior leader in Mr. Maliki’s party said Mr. Sadr’s movement had demanded key ministries [and] a 25% quota of all government jobs, including in the army and police.

Whatever “assurances” the Obama administration has received that these deals won’t come to fruition are likely to be illusory.  Although his regime has accomplished little else, Maliki has shown expertise in finding or creating loopholes in any rules designed to limit his power–in fact, that is why the prime minister has had such a hard time finding any allies since March.

And here lies the real explanation of why Sadr, who at one point seemed to be the political figure most opposed to Maliki’s re-nomination, become the first major leader to officially endorse him.  The conventional wisdom credited the turnabout to pressure from Iran, but the truth has more to do with cold-blooded horse-trading within Iraq.

Any added power the Sadr faction gains over its previous participation in the government will come at the expense not of Maliki, but of the Sadrists’ erstwhile allies in the short-lived Iraqi National Alliance, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), who named a would-be prime minister (Adel Abdel-Mahdi) with support from the Sadr bloc just a month ago.

Having followed Iraqi politics for a while, that was the announcement that surprised me.  You see, ISCI and the Sadrists have had a feud that dates to before the U.S. invasion and has erupted into violence on several occasions since 2003, usually in regard to ISCI’s control of key Muslim shrines in Najaf and Karbala.  In fact, Maliki came to power as an unknown in 2006 due to Moqtada’s determination to keep the prime minister’s job from going to… Adel Abdel-Mahdi of ISCI.

That history appears to be repeating itself now.  Because, with Sadr’s supposedly secured backing, Abdel-Mahdi and ISCI went hat in hand to other major factions (Iyad Allawi and the Kurdish parties) looking for further support in deposing Maliki — only to have the Sadrists go back to the prime minister and cut a deal that threw ISCI under the bus, leaving their powerful ministries (ISCI had been in charge of the army, police, and finance ministries since the 2005 elections) up for grabs.

Those ministries, and the power they represent, appear to be what Sadr was angling after all along.  I’d say, “cue the Scott Joplin piano music,” if it weren’t for the grim implications of what a Sadr-influenced army and police force might have in store for the Iraqi people.