US warns of aid cuts if Sadr bloc takes certain Iraqi ministries

A senior US embassy official made the clearest public statements yet of US determination to try to limit the hardline Sadr movement's influence if it continues to rebuff American overtures.

By , Correspondent

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    Followers of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr, seen in the poster at center, crowd a street as they attend open air Friday prayers in the Shiite stronghold of Sadr City in Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, Dec. 3.
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The US is warning that it could cut substantial funding to Iraq’s Health, Education, and Transport ministries if the anti-American Sadr bloc is given those cabinet posts in a new government being formed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

The comments by a senior US embassy official were the clearest public statements yet of US determination to try to limit the influence of the Sadr movement if it continues to rebuff American overtures. The hardline Shiite bloc won the single biggest number of seats in the Iraqi parliament in March 7 elections but refuses to meet with American officials.

“We accept and understand there are going to be Sadrist ministers, but some of the ministries that have been mentioned in the press as potentially going to the Sadrists happen to be ministries that we look at very closely,” said the embassy official in an interview with the Monitor on Saturday. “We hope that if Sadrists are able to head those ministries, they will be able to take a more pragmatic approach than they have in the past, because it would be a terrible shame for the Iraqi government and the Iraqi people if we were no longer able to run the very substantial education programs we’re running in Iraq.”

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The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, cited the education, health, and transport ministries as those which could become impossible to support if the Sadrists continued to oppose dealing with the US. He declined to specify which Iraqi ministries the US would have no problem in seeing the Sadr bloc running.

The Sadrists are loyal to hardline Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr. After a protracted political crisis in which both Prime Minister Maliki and one-time prime minister Iyad Allawi claimed they had won, the Sadrists threw their support behind Maliki, who now has until the end of the month to choose a cabinet.

Maliki is required to give the coveted Defense and Interior ministries to politicians who are at least nominally independent. But the Sadrists, who draw much of their popular support from the poor and disaffected, are expected to be given some of the key service ministries.

The militia loyal to Sadr fought US soldiers in the streets in 2004 before the enigmatic young cleric announced a cease-fire and joined the political process. He is continuing his religious studies in Iran, and aides say he will not return until US troops are no longer in Iraq.

Along with several other parties, the Sadrists and their paramilitary arm were widely considered to have fueled the sectarian violence here four years ago, with senior officials formally accused of funneling government money to death squads, including within the Health ministry and public hospitals.

“They were incredibly destructive,” says Toby Dodge, an Iraq analyst who served as an adviser on Iraqi government capacity to Gen. David Petraus during the military surge. “Their holding of ministerial portfolios led directly to the quicker descent of Iraq into civil war.”

He said he believed the movement had developed a mastery of politics and become more disciplined since then.

The Sadrists consider the presence of any US forces here an occupation and refuse any but relatively low-level contacts with US officials. They are known to have recently rebuffed attempts by US embassy officials to meet with them.

The US ambassador to Iraq, James Jeffrey, told reporters recently that the United States was not opposed to the Sadrists playing a role in politics, but described the idea that a party could maintain the option of using armed force as well as political participation as ‘‘poison to democracy.” Sadr officials say they have turned the Mehdi Army militia into a social and cultural organization.

“We want to work with these ministries. If the Sadrists end up running these ministries, our hope is that they will come to a realization that this ban on relations with the US government does not serve their political interests and it doesn’t serve Iraq’s interests,” said the senior US official.

“Maliki has a problem – he clearly needs to bring the Sadrists in, but he clearly needs to keep them in their place to do the potential minimum of damage,” said Dr. Dodge in a telephone interview, casting doubt as to whether the US statements would help.

The extent of recent US funding to the Health, Education and Transport ministries that could potentially be affected is unclear, but US scholarships for Iraqi students and support for Iraqi ports and airports are among its biggest projects.

“The US government aid is in training and in capacity development,” says Dodge, the author of "Inventing Iraq," and who is now at the University of London. “I think the great problem is the US aid isn’t big enough to act as a disincentive. It will isolate the Americans and reduce their influence, and finally, it will give the Sadrists the perfect excuse if they’re not very good at their ministries.”

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