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BAGHDAD, Iraq - Muqtada al-Sadr, the firebrand Shiite Muslim cleric who just a year ago encouraged his followers to kill U.S. soldiers, has successfully transformed his ragtag followers into a political force that could dramatically reshape the next parliament.
Preliminary results show al-Sadr supporters holding as many as 31 seats in the 275-seat parliament, a number, if it holds, that would make Sadrists the single-largest group in Iraq's first democratically elected permanent parliament. The Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq will release official election results as early as next week.
Al-Sadr's emergence as a potent political figure has prompted worries that the capricious leader could bring a hard-line Islamic slant to Iraq's new parliament, thwarting any remaining hopes that Iraqis can form a centrist, stabilizing government.
"He is a real spoiler," said Judith Yaphe, a former CIA analyst and Iraq specialist at the National Defense University in Washington.
Some fear that al-Sadr will employ both violence and the political process, keeping his Mahdi Army militia while other supporters participate in parliament. Others hope that his supporters' rise to parliament will wean him off violence as he gains clout over the government.
Some even think that he could provide a bridge to the disaffected Sunni minority, with whom he shares a strong anti-American sentiment.
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"The Sadrists' put together their winning bloc in the Dec. 15 election by joining the Shiite-dominated United Iraqi Alliance slate for the election and also running on a separate slate, the Messengers. Through the United Iraqi Alliance, they won 30 seats. The separate Messengers slate won an additional one, according to various political parties tracking those numbers."
"On the strength of those numbers, Sadrists are demanding a say in who should be prime minister and leadership positions in a number of ministries. They're also demanding that their militia, which fought U.S. and Iraqi forces last year, should become part of the government's security forces."
"Already, they are suggesting that if they don't get what they want, they'd be willing to break with the United Iraqi Alliance, which would eliminate any hope of a unified government."
"We don't have a permanent alliance. We have a permanent goal, which is to serve Iraq," said Salam al Maliki, the Minister of Transport and a high-ranking Sadrist in the current government."