This article was published in The New York Times on 05/01/2011
BAGHDAD — Moktada al-Sadr, the populist cleric who emerged as the United States’ most enduring foe in Iraq, returned Wednesday after more than three years of voluntary exile in Iran in a homecoming that embodied his and his movement’s transition from battling in the streets to occupying the halls of power.
Qassem Zein/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Moqtada al-Sadr arrived in his stronghold of Najaf, Iraq, on Wednesday surrounded by bodyguards.
“Long live the leader!” supporters shouted as a grayer Mr. Sadr made his way from the airport in the holy city of Najaf to his home and then to prayers at the gold-domed shrine of Imam Ali, one of the most sacred places in Shiite Islam. Supporters there hailed his return as another show of strength for a movement that is now more powerful than at any time since the United States invaded in 2003.
Simply by setting foot in Iraq, the mercurial and enigmatic Mr. Sadr complicated the nation’s byzantine politics. He is the rare Iraqi figure who can compete in stature with Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki, and the dealings between Mr. Maliki, the arch politician, and Mr. Sadr, the rabble-rousing cleric, may prove a compelling political drama in the year ahead. Mr. Sadr’s return certainly adds another challenge for the United States, given its fear of his movement’s influence and his steadfast opposition to American policies.
Symbolically, at least, his arrival serves as a resonant climax to the resurgence of a movement whose demise has been forecast as often as rain in Iraq’s winter.
Claiming the legacy of Mr. Sadr’s revered father, Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, who was assassinated in 1999, the group forged a martial culture and become one of the most implacable enemies of the American occupation, fighting the United States military twice in 2004. Four years later, the movement hit was at a nadir: With Mr. Sadr in exile and his militias blamed for some of the war’s worst sectarian carnage, the Iraqi military, with decisive American help, vanquished the group in Baghdad and Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city. The divided movement itself seemed a spent force.
But in local elections in 2009, it made impressive gains, foreshadowing the remarkable discipline it showed in national elections last year. The 40 seats it won — second only to Mr. Maliki’s bloc among the Shiite majority — brought it to the center of Iraqi politics and, to its supporters at least, marked the group’s transition from a militia force to a mainstream political group. Mr. Sadr’s surprise decision in August to throw his support to Mr. Maliki, his longtime antagonist, for a second term as prime minister effectively decided the election in Mr. Maliki’s favor. Mr. Sadr’s followers exacted repayment in critical government posts.
“He’s been absent a long time, but with his presence in Iraq, it will strengthen the resolve of our Sadrist brothers to serve the people of Iraq,” said Muhammad al-Khafaji, a former bodyguard of Mr. Sadr’s who won a seat in the election.
Mr. Sadr is a vastly different figure than the one who left in 2007 to pursue his clerical studies — and to avoid an arrest warrant for the killing of a rival cleric in 2003.
In his early days, he was often derided as too young, even dimwitted, and his squat and pudgy physique did little to inspire confidence. The man who appeared on Wednesday, though, had aged, with gray streaking his beard, and he seemed to stride with more confidence. In recent public statements, he has overcome the awkwardness he displayed 2003, now delivering his speeches in a refined, if simple and deliberate Arabic.
It was unclear whether Mr. Sadr would still face criminal charges. Mr. Kadhum, the Sadrist lawmaker, said there was no warrant for the cleric’s arrest. “That was just from the previous government to target the Sadrists, to take us away from the political process,” Mr. Kadhum said.
Hussain Al Saffi, a lawmaker from Mr. Maliki’s bloc, said the government had “no intention or inclination to raise any legal issues related to Mr. Moktada.”
There were conflicting reports, too, about whether Mr. Sadr’s return was permanent or merely a visit. Even some of his own supporters seemed unsure.
“It’s up to his eminence to stay permanently in Najaf or go back to Iran,” said Balqis al-Khafaji, who was a Sadrist candidate in the election.
Mr. Sadr’s return from Qom, a seat of Shiite scholarship in Iran, had long been rumored. In the weeks before the elections, many of his supporters were convinced that it was imminent, in part to rally support before the vote. There was no advance word of his trip on Wednesday, and many of his followers learned of his arrival from television.
If he stays in Iraq, his impact on politics, at least in the short-term, may be more symbolic than real. The movement has performed well in his absence, with its delegates impressing even the movement’s critics with their skills in the negotiations that led to the formation of the government last month. One analyst suggested that the success of an emerging Sadrist leadership inside Iraq may have motivated Mr. Sadr to come back.
At the very least, Mr. Sadr becomes one of the few national leaders with the grass-roots support to compete with Mr. Maliki, whom Mr. Sadr’s supporters had derided as an heir to Saddam Hussein and an American lackey. Mr. Sadr’s support for the prime minister came with a high price: hundreds of his followers were released from prison, and the movement was given leadership of a province, positions in the security forces and control of some ministries.
The Sadr-Maliki rivalry may become more intense as the 2012 deadline nears for all United States troops to withdraw from Iraq. Some American officials have suggested that Mr. Maliki would be open to an extension for at least some troops — a position that Mr. Sadr would almost certainly refuse.
The perception of Mr. Sadr as a wild card led some of his supporters to worry that his return might incite strife. And while, for many, he captured the voice of populist anger against the American occupation, he remains — especially to Iraq’s Sunni minority — synonymous with the black-clad death squads that terrorized the country in 2006-7.
“I don’t think Moktada will bring good with him to Iraq,” said Muhammad al-Adhami, a government employee in Adhamiya, a largely Sunni neighborhood in Baghdad.