The Shi’a cleric leads the al-Ahrar Block, which holds 40 seats in parliament and six ministerial posts in the Maliki cabinet. Al-Sadr has accused Mr Maliki, who is also a Shi’a, of using Shi’ism to establish a new dictatorship, allow widescale corruption, and cause major splits among the religious and ethnic communities, leading to a possible partition of Iraq. In a televised address on 18 February, Mr Sadr said that under Mr Maliki “politics became a door for injustices and the abuse and humiliation of the rule of a dictator and tyrant who controls the funds as he loots them…He attacks the cities, the sects, so he divides them.”

He added that, ironically, Mr Maliki’s policies have the support of both Iran and Washington. Mr Sadr’s criticism of the prime minister is not new, nor is his announcement to withdraw from politics. He has criticized Mr Maliki repeatedly and announced his political resignation several times before. What makes his decision to quit important this time is its timing, coming a few weeks prior to the April polls. The failure of Mr Maliki to combat terrorism (14 car bombs hit Baghdad within 24 hours a fortnight ago), or to meet the basic needs of society ( chronic shortages of electricity and water) led his State of the Law Block to lose badly in recent local elections, in both the Baghdad and Basra provinces. Mr Maliki lost to Shi’a opponents: both Muqtada al-Sadr and ‘Ammar al-Hakim of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. (CONTINUED - 1094 WORDS)