Sadr Back in Iraq, U.S. Generals Say

By Thomas E. Ricks and Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, May 25, 2007

BAGHDAD, May 24 -- Moqtada al-Sadr, the influential Shiite cleric and militia leader who went into hiding before the launch of a U.S.-Iraqi security offensive in February, is in the southern city of Kufa, senior U.S. military commanders said Thursday.

Sadr, who has long opposed the U.S. occupation and is ratcheting up pressure for a withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, has returned from neighboring Iran, perhaps as recently as this week, they said.

"He's been very quiet since he's come back," said Maj. Gen. Joseph F. Fil Jr., commander of the U.S. Army's 1st Cavalry Division, which is spearheading the offensive in and around Baghdad, now in its fourth month. Sadr's aides said their leader has remained in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, adjacent to Kufa.

Sadr's movement is wooing Sunni leaders and purging extremists in his Mahdi Army militia in an attempt to strengthen his image as a nationalist who can lead all Iraqis at a time when antiwar sentiments are growing in the United States and Iraq's political landscape is increasingly fractured.

Sadr's apparent reemergence comes days after his main Shiite rival, cleric Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, went to Iran for treatment of lung cancer. Hakim is also trying to strike a nationalist stance, recently changing the name of his party from the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq to the Supreme Islamic Council in Iraq.

There are growing signs that extremists in Sadr's militia are disobeying his orders to stand down, as U.S. troops raid and patrol their strongholds. After three months of sharp declines, sectarian violence is rising again in Baghdad, a possible indication that Shiite militiamen are resuming reprisal attacks. Sadr's aides have described the cleric's orders as intended to improve his credibility and dispel allegations that the Mahdi Army was fueling sectarian violence.

Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the No. 2 commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, said he believed Sadr had returned to Iraq to shore up his organization.

"I think he's trying to consolidate his power base," Odierno said Thursday evening in his office near the Baghdad airport. "I think there's been a little bit of cracking in the JAM organization," he added, using an acronym for Jaish al-Mahdi, the Arabic name for the Mahdi Army.

Senior Sadr aides have strongly disputed the U.S. military's assertion that Sadr fled to Iran, calling it an attempt to tarnish his nationalist credentials. They have long insisted that Sadr, while remaining in Najaf, vanished from sight for political and strategic reasons.

"Sayyid Moqtada had never left Najaf in order to return back. He is still in Najaf," said Ahmed Shaibani, a senior Sadr aide, using the honorific for descendants of the prophet Muhammad. "The issue of when he will appear is a personal matter that belongs only to him."

Sadr's disappearance has generated much discussion on the streets, in local newspapers and on television. While some Iraqis questioned his leadership and his military strength, others derided him as a lackey of Iran. Yet his followers continued to have immense faith in him. At the cleric's behest, tens of thousands of Shiites marched into Najaf last month demanding a U.S. pullout.

Upon his orders, Sadr's followers pulled their six ministers out of the cabinet of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki last month, after Maliki refused to demand a timetable for a withdrawal of U.S. troops. Sadr's aides said the move would free them to challenge legislation in Iraq's parliament, where Sadr still controls 30 seats.

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