It might fairly be said that Iraq's post-invasion history has turned a new page with the return of Muqtada al-Sadr to Iraq. As Tony Shadid and others have noted, he is perhaps the only Iraqi political leader with as much grassroots support as Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, which means that if Maliki's government doesn't perform, Muqtada - even though his party is an important piece in Maliki's coalition - could be the focus of a powerful opposition movement. And in his speech today, Muqtada indeed served notice that he and his followers will stand with Maliki's government if it comes through:"The Iraqi government has been formed," he said. "If it serves the Iraqi people, and provides services, we will stand by it, not against it.
Of course, Muqtada's statement potentially leaves it largely in Muqtada's hands to be the "decider" (to channel W's terminology) about how well the government is indeed serving the people. That entails several items high on Muqtada's list:
getting basic services like water, sewage, and electrical systems up and running, especially to the urban poor of Baghdad and the south who are Muqtada's base of popular support
getting the Americans out by the agreed-upon end-of-2011 deadline. Maliki's return was not good news for the US, which dearly wants to maintain a significant military presence there for the sake of "stability" (=American-speak for blocking any increase in Iran's influence, and for preserving Petraeus' "victory" there). Expect Muqtada to be adamant about this. If Maliki waffles, Muqtada and his followers could bolt, and Muqtada's Promised Day brigades could make life miserable for US forces and for the Iraqi army (many of whose members, let's remember, are former members of the Shia sectarian militias associated with Maliki's al-Da'wa party and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, with whom Sadrist forces have done battle in the past).
Muqtada styles himself as an Iraqi religious nationalist, but some believe that Maliki sweetened his appeal to Muqtada by assuring his party the governorship of four of Iraq's southern directorates, thus providing him a territorial base where he is already very popular, and where presumably his dictates will have immense authority. To the extent that Maliki might interfere with Muqtada's authority there (and remember, in 2008 Maliki sent Iraqi forces against the Sadrists in Basra and in Baghdad's Sadr City), Muqtada might declare that a failure by Maliki to serve the Iraqi people.
Finally, another major attack by Sunni jihadists ("al-Qaeda") against Iraq Shia, especially if they occur in Sadr City, will give Muqtada yet another pretext for declaring that Maliki's government has failed the Iraqi people.
The weeks ahead are going to be critical for the stability of Maliki's government.
And if the security surrounding Muqtada somehow breaks down or is infiltrated, and Muqtada himself is attacked (or worse) . . . .