BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Anti-U.S. Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s return to Iraq from exile in Iran is a product of the rise to political power of the Sadrist movement, and declining U.S. influence as its military withdraws this year.
The enigmatic cleric mobilized millions of poor Shi’ite Muslims after the 2003 invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein and his militia battled U.S. forces. His return could mean a shift away from fiery rhetoric in the wake of his bloc’s political gains in last year’s election.
The support of the Sadrists, thought to have been brokered at least in part by Iran, was crucial in securing a second term for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and ending a 9-month deadlock over the formation of a government.
Embracing the political process, rather than armed struggle, the Sadrist movement toned down its religious rhetoric, and cast itself as less sectarian in last year’s election. It focused on public services, and grabbed 39 seats in Iraq’s 325-parliament and seven ministries in Iraq’s new government.
Many minority Sunnis, who were dominant under Saddam, may view Sadr’s renewed presence with apprehension. His Mehdi Army militia played a big role in violence against Sunnis during the peak of sectarian warfare in 2006-07.
Nevertheless, many Iraqis said they saw Sadr’s return as a positive step toward reconciliation as the all-out sectarian slaughter subsides, the U.S. military withdraws and Iraq seeks to use its tremendous oil wealth to rebuild.
The following are some scenarios:
Sadr, the scion of a revered clerical family, faded from the political scene after he fled Iraq and began religious studies in Iran more than three years ago.
The first question is whether Sadr will stay, or go back to Iran. Sadrist officials said the Maliki government has guaranteed his safety and freedom from arrest. They say that whether his return becomes permanent depends on how things go, suggesting he is testing the waters.
But some of Sadr’s companions who escorted him from Iran gave the impression he is here to stay, a Sadrist official said. Sadr himself has not made any public announcement of his plans.
Followers said they expected him to lead a push for better public services and the release of imprisoned Sadrists.
But Sadr is not expected to seek a role in government.
In his first statement issued after his return, Sadr criticized followers who jostled and shoved each other to get a glimpse of him when he arrived. He said their chants and slogans damaged the reputation of the Sadr family, and urged restraint.
This could signal Sadr wants to be viewed as a dignified religious figure, not a radical cleric or militia chief.
Even as a religious leader, Sadr will need to make sure his movement has a say in government, and is not sidelined.
Some Iraqis will find it hard to shake off the perception that Sadr was associated with Shi’ite death squads at the height of the sectarian mayhem that gripped Iraq, and will fear his reappearance means his Mehdi Army militia will be revived.
But his return does not have to lead to sectarian strife.
Overall violence in Iraq has subsided dramatically, although bombing and killings remain common.
Much of the continued violence is attributed to Sunni Islamist insurgents opposed to Shi’ite political supremacy in Iraq, but some of it is due to Shi’ite extremist groups once allied with the Sadrist movement but which have since split.
Tensions may rise if Sadr’s return allows some followers to think he wants them to flex their muscles again.
The Mehdi Army was crushed by U.S. and Iraqi forces in 2008 and has largely laid down its arms.
It could come back if Sadrist supporters are disillusioned with the results of their movement’s participation in politics.
“Sadr’s return is not an immediate indication that the (Mehdi) army will take up arms again, it has no cause at this point for doing so,” said Gala Riani, Middle East analyst at IHS Global Insight. “But potential for its return to arms is ever-present.”
Sadr would be a tempting target for al Qaeda’s Iraqi affiliate, seeking to reignite sectarian war. A strike on him could quite possibly lead to a wave of revenge attacks.
It is more probable that Sadr’s return will lead to heightened intra-Shi’ite tensions. His absence from Iraq has created space for onetime associates to follow their own paths, and as rivals they may now resent his return.
One dangerous foe is Asaib al-Haq, an offshoot of Sadr’s movement, which Sadr has repudiated since agreeing to join the government. Asaib al-Haq has become one of the most actively violent Shi’ite groups, attacking security forces and government targets, Iraqi and U.S. security officials say.
Sadr may also end up being the main political counterweight to Maliki, who is also a Shi’ite, and is not known for toeing the line of others or of being easily persuaded.
That may cause tensions within the government as Maliki tries in his second term to enforce his will.
Opponents of Maliki, now loosely allied under the umbrella of former secularist Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s Sunni-backed Iraqiya alliance, have welcomed Sadr’s return.
While Iraqiya is also part of the new government, its embrace of Sadr is likely a result of hopes that his political clout in the cabinet will hobble Maliki, or prevent him from fully taking control of Iraq.