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US tested by victory in Iraqi election of al-Sadr, once an intractable foe

Tracy Wilkinson and David S. Cloud, Tribune Washington Bureau on

Published in News & Features

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 anti-American 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.

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