Hojatoleslam Muqtada al-Sadr, the firebrand cleric whose militants fought British troops in Basra before being driven out by Iraqi forces, has emerged as a potential kingmaker in the next government.

The Sadrist Movement, the political arm of al-Mahdi Army, is believed to have won between 30 and 40 seats in the 325-member Parliament in this month’s elections — giving it the balance of power while the two main contenders for prime minister jockey for position.

Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiya group and Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law list appear to have won just under 90 seats each. They need 163 to form a majority and choose the next leader.

Even with the support of the Kurdish bloc and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq either grouping would fall short — hence both are courting Hojatoleslam al-Sadr. “The Sadrists look like the kingmakers in this,” a Western diplomat said. “It’s not quite clear what they would want in return for their support.”

Neither of the two front-runners has good relations with the Sadrists, who withdrew from the government three years ago after falling out with al-Maliki, the current Prime Minister. In 2008 Mr al-Maliki led Iraqi forces to Basra in a successful campaign to quash al-Mahdi Army.

Allawi, once a member of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party, is a secularist who abhors the Islamist goals of the Sadrists. Aides to both men say privately, however, that they have been holding talks with the Sadrist movement. “We talked to them even before the election,” one said.

The movement denied holding coalition talks in keeping with its public image of being aloof from the parties.

The main issue to be negotiated is whether the Sadrists would be allowed to run their own militia while part of a government. Allawi and al-Maliki are believed to have demanded that al-Mahdi Army and its related groups be dissolved.

“We don’t want to end up with a state within the state like in Lebanon, where Hezbollah can bully the government by bringing out their army,” an adviser to al-Maliki said.

The core support for the Sadrist movement comes from poor Shias in Baghdad and the south. At the March 7 election — the results of which have still not been fully released because of counting disputes — the Sadrists formed an alliance with the Islamic Supreme Council but then took about three times as many seats. This shift in Shia support could transform politics as pragmatists are edged out by a more anti-American organization.

Hojatoleslam al-Sadr’s movement was born out of the resistance against the U.S.-led invasion. His al-Mahdi Army fought battles with U.S. and British soldiers in Baghdad, Basra and Najaf until a ceasefire two years ago.

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