It would be hard to imagine a more unlikely meeting. Late in July, the tempestuous Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr traveled to Damascus from Iran, where he's been living in exile for the past three years. The trip looked at first to be a routine photo-op for Sadr and Syrian President Bashar Assad. That is, until Sadr met with Ayad Allawi, a top contender for the prime minister post in Iraq and one of the cleric's sworn enemies. Their mutual enmity dates back to a showdown in the holy city of Najaf in the summer of 2004. Sadr's Mahdi Army fighters had taken over the city and were using the Imam Ali shrine, one of the holiest sites for Shiites, as a base of operations. Allawi, who was interim prime minister at the time, gave American and Iraqi troops the green light to take them out, killing dozens of Mahdi militiamen in the process.
So it was no small thing for the two to meet in person. And they didn't just talk; they were laughing and hamming it up as if they were the best of friends. The photos and video footage from that meeting are some of the only public examples of Sadr smiling (the more common profile is a scowling Sadr, wrapped in a white martyr's shroud, pounding a pulpit). Sadr had good reason to be happy: He now holds the fate of his one-time enemy in his hands.
Sadr -- feared by some, reviled by others and revered by a broad swath of Iraq's urban poor -- is now a kingmaker in Iraqi politics. It's a role that Sadr, the scion of a prominent clerical family, has been building toward since 2003. Immediately after the U.S. invasion, thousands of his supporters packed the dusty streets of Baghdad's Saddam City neighborhood (later renamed Sadr City) for Friday prayers week after week. Sadr rallied their ranks around his parliamentary list in the 2005 elections, making a strong showing, and then used his political clout to help push Nouri al-Maliki into the prime minister slot in 2006. But the friendship didn't last: Sadr bitterly split from Maliki when the latter allowed American troops to attack his militia members. Depending on whom you ask, Sadr either sensed he was next to be targeted and fled to Iran or was convinced of that fact by Iranian officials, who urged Sadr to leave for his own safety. Now, as U.S. troops withdraw and negotiations are underway in Baghdad to form a new government, Sadr may be planning his return. If he does, he will no doubt face jubilant crowds once again.
Sadr's political comeback was the result of careful and deliberate planning. More than a year before the elections in March, Sadr and his top aides set up an election strategy committee they dubbed the "machine." The goal was to game the electoral system as best as they could. A team of seven pored over the election law, dissected district maps, and built an extensive database of voters in every province. In the end, Sadr's Free Movement party won 39 seats in parliament, giving his followers a decisive vote within the National Iraqi Alliance, the dominant Shiite bloc of which they are part. And that's exactly why Allawi shuttled to Damascus for the meeting: He needs Sadr if he hopes to become prime minister.