(Reuters) - Radical Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who fled Iraq some time in 2006 or 2007 after an arrest warrant was issued for him, has returned from self-imposed exile in Iran for the first time, after his movement struck a deal to join the next Iraqi government.
Following are key facts about Sadr, an important supporter of Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki as he establishes his second government, and the Mehdi Army.
* Washington used to call the Mehdi Army, a Shi’ite militia loyal to Sadr, the biggest threat to Iraq’s security and still regards it with suspicion although the militia says it has laid down its arms. Iraqi and U.S. forces crushed the militia in 2008. U.S. officials and Sunni Arab leaders accused the Mehdi Army of being behind many of the sectarian killings that ravaged Iraq after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Sadr has disavowed violence against fellow Iraqis and in 2008 ordered his militia to become a humanitarian group.
* Sadr, whose stronghold is Baghdad’s sprawling Sadr City slum, led two uprisings against U.S. forces in 2004. The U.S. occupation authority issued an arrest warrant for him for his alleged role in the murder of a rival cleric. The arrest was never carried out but the warrant may still be valid.
* Sadr’s political group was instrumental in appointing Maliki, a fellow Shi’ite from the Dawa party, as prime minister for the first time in May 2006. Sadr again became a crucial supporter of Maliki as he tried to retain his position after the election last March. The Sadrist movement has 39 seats in the new parliament and will have seven ministries in Maliki’s new government, which won parliamentary approval last month.
* Sadr, a fiery nationalist who demanded a speedier U.S. withdrawal than the end-2011 deadline set in a security pact between Iraq and the United States, derives much of his authority from his family. His father, highly respected Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, was murdered in 1999 for defying Saddam Hussein. His father’s cousin, Mohammed Baqir, was killed by Saddam in 1980.
* Sadr, in his 30s, has a zealous following among the young, poor and dispossessed. His power, though diminished, has unsettled Shi’ite religious elders in the holy city of Najaf, many of whom see the junior cleric as a dangerous upstart. He has spent the past 3 years in the Iranian city of Qom, a center of Shi’ite learning, where he is said to have been studying.