Muqtada al-Sadr, the fiery Shiite cleric who changed the course of Iraqi history, has made a triumphant return, putting the United States and the Iraqi government on notice that he intends to play an even wider if unpredictable role in the country’s future.
In his first public address here since slipping out of the country almost four years ago, the young cleric on Saturday led thousands of cheering, weeping followers who thronged the holy city of Najaf in chants of "No to America."
While his denunciation of the United States has become obligatory for a movement that has defined itself by trying to drive out US forces, the young cleric made clear that attacks continued to be an option.
“We are still resisting the occupation militarily, culturally and by any other means necessary,” he told followers who had camped out overnight to hear him speak.
He also made clear with a call for discipline, including in who could carry arms, that this was not the organization he headed in 2004, when young men armed with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades roamed the streets shooting at American tanks.
Mr. Sadr rose to international prominence when the Mahdi Army, his paramilitary force rose up against US forces in Najaf, Karbala, and Baghdad, mounting the biggest challenge to American forces since they toppled Saddam Hussein. The United States pledged to either capture or kill him before he agreed to a cease-fire.
Three years later he resurfaced in Iran, to continue his religious education in the holy city of Qom.
But it is Sadr’s most recent incarnation as a political figure that is expected to have the most impact on Iraq, including his surprise return a year before officials expected him following the withdrawal of US troops.
“First of all, he was no longer scared the Americans would go after him because it’s not so much in the American hands,” says Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group. “I think the reason he came back is strictly political. Even though the occupation ends next year…the real time is now. Because now there is a new government and he is an instrumental part of it.”
Political power broker
Sadr has enough seats in the new Iraqi parliament that his grudging support for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in a deal believed brokered by Iran allowed Maliki to retain his position. He could also potentially gather enough support to bring down the unpopular prime minister if he chose.
“The conflict has moved far enough along the spectrum from fighting to politics that Sadr not only feels safe to return but recognizes that if he doesn’t do so soon, he’ll lose control of his political wing,” says John Nagl, head of the Center for a New American Security, by e-mail.
In his address on Saturday, Sadr, heir to the legacy of a revered Shiite family, urged patience with the fledgling government, which includes eight cabinet ministers from the Sadr bloc. “Please do not stand in the way of the government but support it,” he told followers who thronged his home neighborhood.
“He has offered his support of the government for now, guardedly, unconditionally, and I think it’s in fact a very good check on Maliki,” says Mr. Hiltermann. “Sadr has a very important role to play and that means he has to shore up the troops. He has to make sure there’s internal discipline, that everyone is on message and that they play their role very carefully and very well."
The day after Sadr’s Saturday address in parliament’s first session of the year, his political bloc illustrated why they had won so much popular support despite serious concerns about its role in fueling Iraq’s civil war.
Sadr official Baha al-Araji told Parliament that his party called for a share of oil revenues to be distributed to Iraqi citizens, financial help for farmers, and free land to the homeless.
His return marks a shift in dynamics in the country’s murky inter-Shiite politics. Part of the reason Sadr is believed to have left Iraq was an arrest warrant for alleged involvement in the murder of a rival Shiite cleric beaten and stabbed to death in Najaf in 2003.
Unlike the Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who commands considerable power through his religious credentials but does not become directly involved in politics, Sadr is known as an Iraqi nationalist and a political champion of the poor.
In addition, the most fervent of his followers believe that his return could herald the coming of Judgment Day.
Sadr also presents a dilemma for the United States, which engineered Iraq’s democracy but faces the prospect of an elected government with a significant element that not only opposes the US presence here but refuses to talk to US officials.
US officials have said they believe the Sadrists have not fully renounced violence and blame continued attacks on American forces on the Promised Day Brigades, the successor to the Mahdi Army.
With the splintering of the Mahdi Army it’s unclear how much control Sadr exerts over the fighters. Ever unpredictable, Sadr said after the Iraqi Army drove his fighters out of Basra three years ago that he was disbanding the Mahdi Army. But many of them appear to be waiting in the wings.
Says Hiltermann: “All those guys could easily pick up weapons again and return to the urban front lines.”