Mehdi Army leader Moqtada al-Sadr returns to Baghdad
The Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, one of the most controversial public figures to have emerged in Iraq following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, has returned after three years of self-imposed exile in Iran.
Sadr's militia, the Mehdi Army, was once described by the Americans as the greatest threat facing Iraq, while the cleric's supporters accused US forces of attempting to assassinate him. But the Shia leader returns with the political faction he leads about to become part of a new government.
The arrival of Sadr is viewed as boosting prime minister Nouri al-Maliki as he tries to form a coalition after months of impasse following national elections last March. In return for their support, the Sadrist movement, which has 39 seats in parliament, will be given seven ministries.
The US, which has officially ended its combat mission in Iraq, still views Sadr with suspicion. However, senior figures in the Obama administration are said to feel that it is better for the cleric, who has a large following among the poor and dispossessed Shia population, to be back in Iraq, away from direct Iranian influence.
The Mehdi Army fought the US forces in 2004 and its power continued to grow especially in the Shia south of the country where its fighters, along with other militias, effectively ran Basra, Iraq's second city, following a deal with British forces.
In 2008 Iraqi government forces, backed by the Americans, and later the British, drove the Mehdi Army out of Basra after an intense battle. But while Sadr's military power suffered a setback, his political reach continued to grow as Maliki needed his support to hold together his Shia coalition. Sadr subsequently announced from the Iranian city of Qom, where he had taken up residence, that his militia would devote itself to humanitarian work.
Yesterday Sadr went to the Shia holy city of Najaf where he visited the grave of his father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, who was killed in 1999 for his opposition to the Baathist regime in Baghdad. As made his way to the Imam Ali shrine and then his home in the Hanana district, the cleric was followed by hundreds of supporters chanting "Yes, yes to Moqtada" and "Praise Allah, Moqtada has returned."
It was in Najaf in 2003 that Sadr and two dozen of his supporters were accused of murdering Imam Abdul Majid al-Khoei. An arrest warrant was issued for Sadr by an Iraqi judge but the Western run Coalition Provisional Authority, then administering occupied Iraq, shelved the indictment. A move to activate the warrant in 2007 was said to be one of the reasons the cleric fled to Iran.
Mazan al-Sadi, a cleric and an official in the Sadrist movement, said: "There are concerns that someone will target him,... when you know that he has many enemies who will try to create unrest. They will try to target him.
"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."
Most political observers in the Iraqi capital agreed that Sadr has played the long game well. Hameed Fadhel of Baghdad University held, "He chose his time to confirm that he is backing Maliki and the government. This will give a new boost to the government, the fact that Sadr is strongly supporting [it]."
Ibrahim al-Sumaidaie, an analyst, said: "Moqtada has made sure that he returns as an important partner in parliament, and the executive power. The Americans will not object to his return, he will be out of Iran and he will act according to Iraqi priorities."
But Iran, which like Iraq has a Shia majority, has seen its influence grow in the affairs of its neighbour since the US led invasion of 2003, and it continues to take a close interest in Iraqi politics.
Yesterday the new Iranian acting foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, was first senior official from Tehran to visit Baghdad since the formation of the new Iraqi government.