NAJAF, Iraq (Reuters) - Anti-U.S. Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr returned to Iraq on Wednesday from years of self-imposed exile in Iran, after his faction struck a deal to join a new government, Sadrist officials said.
A somewhat diminished maverick whose militia was once viewed by U.S. forces as the greatest threat to Iraq, Sadr’s return
could boost Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki as he tries to form
his second government before a full U.S. withdrawal this year.
Mazan al-Sadi, a Sadrist cleric in Baghdad, said Sadr, whose movement battled U.S. forces and was accused of many sectarian killings after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, was visiting the Shi’ite holy city of Najaf in southern Iraq.
Hundreds of followers flocked to the Imam Ali shrine in the city to chant “yes, yes to Moqtada” as he arrived there, dressed in clerical black robes and a black headdress. Others gathered outside his house and office, where security was tight.
“His return brings happiness for all Iraqis and the government,” said Natiq Abdul Majeed, a resident of Baghdad’s mainly Shi’ite Karrada district. “It will cancel many negative issues like sectarianism and fix relations between the parties.”
Sadi said Moqtada also visited his father’s grave before going to his family house in Hanana.
Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said Sadr’s return was positive for political stability.
But many Iraqi Sunnis may view it with apprehension.
Sadr, the scion of a Shi’ite religious family, galvanized anti-U.S. sentiment after the overthrow of Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein and led two uprisings against U.S. forces in 2004.
His Mehdi Army was crushed by Maliki in 2008 and has largely laid down its arms, though U.S. officials still regard it with suspicion.
Sadr has pushed steadfastly for an earlier U.S. withdrawal than the end-2011 deadline set in a bilateral security pact.
He fled Iraq in 2006 or 2007 after an arrest warrant was issued for him and is believed to have spent the past few years in the Iranian city of Qom taking religious studies.
Sadrist officials said the government had guaranteed his safety and freedom from arrest. Whether his return is permanent will depend on how things go, one said.
“Moqtada returns as an important partner in parliament, in the political process and the executive power,” said Iraqi political analyst Ibrahim al-Sumaidaie.
“The Americans will not object to his return ... this return will mean that Moqtada will be out of Iranian control and will act according to Iraqi priorities.”
Sadr’s political movement emerged as kingmaker after Iraq’s parliamentary election last March, securing a deal to be part of the new government after supporting Maliki for a second term in office.
It has 39 seats in the new parliament and will get seven ministries.
“I think this will give a new boost to the government and stresses that Sadr is strongly supporting this government,” said Iraqi political analyst Hameed Fadhel of Baghdad University.
“He chose this time to confirm he is backing the government, Maliki and the government’s agenda.”
Since joining the government, Sadr has tried to distance himself from militant links and has renounced Asaib al-Haq, an offshoot of his movement believed to be behind some of the continuing violence in Iraq.
Followers said they expected him to lead a push for better public services and the release of imprisoned Sadrists.
Sadi said while there were worries the cleric may be targeted, his ties to the new government gave him some security.
“There are concerns that someone will target him (Sadr), specifically when you know that he has many enemies who will try to create unrest. They will try to target him,” Sadi said.
“The government wouldn’t dare to touch him because they know he has a big public support base and given his support and expanded participation in the political process.”
Additional reporting by Suadad al-Salhy, Ahmed Rasheed, Rania el Gamal, Khalid al-Ansary and Ali al-Mashadani in Baghdad; Writing by Serena Chaudhry; Editing by Michael Christie and Tim Pearce