BAGHDAD – Muqtada al-Sadr is not at the conference on Iraq that opened on Thursday in Sharm-al-Sheikh, Egypt, even though he is, hands down, the most popular, and certainly the most charismatic, political leader in Iraq, with his ears finely tuned to the Shi’ite – and even Sunni – street.

Nasr al-Roubaie is the leader of the 32-strong Sadrist bloc in the Iraqi Parliament. As Muqtada’s top man in government, Roubaie could not but be one of Iraq’s top political players. Between two parliamentary meetings, Roubaie took time to give an exclusive interview to Asia Times Online. Symbolically, we talked on the outer limits of the Green Zone, practically in the Red Zone, outside the first checkpoint, manned by Georgian troops who speak virtually no English and absolutely no Arabic. The Sadrists, it should be remembered, are – literally – both inside and outside the Green Zone government.

Roubaie emphasized the key Sadrist strategy that a timetable must be set for the total withdrawal of US troops – and the US Congress’s Madam Speaker Nancy Pelosi, as well as 64% of American voters, according to the latest polls, would certainly agree. “Our fight has developed in many different ways. Some are peaceful. Some are armed. We are engaged in political resistance. We want to get our real freedom through peaceful means,” said Roubaie.

So far, peace between the Baghdad surge and Muqtada’s Mehdi Army has been a mirage – even considering the fact that the Mehdi Army, on Muqtada’s explicit orders, has been lying very low. We spoke to Roubaie the day after US forces attacked the Sadr office in Kadhimiya – which houses a key Shi’ite shrine. Residents confirmed a heavy firefight. Two US Humvees were burned, and nine Iraqi civilians were killed. A large street demonstration took place in Kadhimiya. The result is that now US forces can get no closer than 1 kilometer to any important Shi’ite shrine.

Roubaie had just come from a meeting where a motion signed by 134 Parliament members was being introduced demanding a timetable for US withdrawal. “It’s not only us – the parties from Kurdistan, the Sunni parties, are all united.” This was a reference to the Kurdistan alliance and the powerful, 44-seat-strong Tawafuq Front Sunni bloc, which groups three parties. Roubaie left implicit that the key religious parties in government, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and Da’wa, are against the timetable.

Every year Parliament reviews the presence of US occupation forces. Roubaie revealed that starting in June, the review will occur every six months. “The Americans want to stay in Iraq. They said they wanted to establish an Iraqi force. They did nothing – we still have no army. And they did nothing for the people.”

In his latest letter to Parliament, read by Sadrist female member Liqa’ al-Yassin, Muqtada characterized the Iraq drama as a fight between the Mehdi against the Dajjal, an evil, one-eyed entity similar to the antichrist in Shi’ite cosmology. US President George W. Bush, of course, is the Dajjal. Muqtada also emphasized that Bush “ignores every call for a withdrawal.”

So if the Americans want to stay, this must be connected with oil, and the extremely controversial new Iraqi oil law, which should, in theory, be approved by Parliament next month (at least according to the explicit demands of the Bush administration). Roubaie said, “The oil of Iraq should benefit all the people. We cannot hand out our oil wells to foreign companies with these production-sharing agreements. The sovereignty of Iraq will be compromised. This will be only pen on paper, like the last orders of the Abbasid caliphs. Our oil wells should benefit all Iraqis.”

The Sadrists want an oil law that “is the symbol of the unity of Iraq, and not good only for the Kurds or for the south.” Here we find the Sadrists in essence concurring with Saddam Hussein, who nationalized the Iraqi oil industry in 1972.

Once again the criticism of the top government parties, the SCIRI and Da’wa, is implicit. Abdul Adel Mahdi, the SCIRI’s No 2, has been one of the top cheerleaders of the oil law; he has been to Washington to assure Big Oil of the “great opportunities” lying ahead. Oil Minister Husain al-Shahrastani, from Da’wa, is also a top cheerleader, arguing that the oil law “will benefit all Iraqis” and boasting that the country may raise oil production to 4 million barrels a day until 2012, and then to 8 million barrels a day. According to the minister, Iraq currently exports 2.2 million barrels a day – a very dubious figure considering non-stop pipeline sabotage by Sunni guerrillas.

There’s a real possibility in the months ahead of an Iraqi shadow cabinet being formed – uniting Sadrists and Sunni nationalists. This poses the striking alternative confronting Iraq’s government: What will prevail, Iraqi nationalism – as represented by Muqtada – or a semi-alignment with Iran – represented by the SCIRI and Da’wa? As for Muqtada, he will remain the kingmaker.

“Is he in Iran or Iraq?”

“Of course in Iraq,” answered Roubaie with a huge grin, as a column of US Bradleys rumbled back to its cozy abode in the Green Zone. So the White House, once again, has been spinning a lie about the cleric having fled the country.