Cleric Moqtada al-Sadr returns to Iraq after self-imposed exile

Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 6, 2011; 12:00 AM

NAJAF, IRAQ - Anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose militia contributed to the bloodiest days of the Iraq war, made a surprise return to Iraq on Wednesday, ending nearly four years of self-imposed exile in Iran and raising new questions about U.S. influence here.

Sadr's remarkable trajectory brought him home just as his political faction attains significant power, allied in Iraq's new national unity government with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who just a few years ago moved to crush Sadr's Mahdi Army.

It was Sadr's recent decision to support Maliki for a second term, in a deal brokered by Iran, that ended eight months of political deadlock and allowed Maliki, also a Shiite, to cobble together his new government two weeks ago.

In another sign of Iran's significant influence in Iraq, just as U.S. troops prepare to leave the country by the end of the year, Iran's new foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, met in Baghdad on Wednesday with Maliki and more than a dozen other government officials.

The Sadrist faction controls at least eight of about three dozen ministries in Maliki's new cabinet and has vowed to become a full participant in the political process. But the return of Sadr leaves open the question of whether he will seek to reassert his influence solely through political means, or will instead revert to violence.

"That's what everybody is holding their breath about," said J. Scott Carpenter, who was serving as deputy assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs during Sadr's rise and most violent clashes with U.S. forces.

"There are two views about Moqtada Sadr," Carpenter said. "He is either trying to create a bastion for himself in the south of Iraq with his militia, like Hezbollah, or become part of the political process as a leader."

The State Department reacted cautiously to the news of Sadr's return, saying that it was an internal matter for Iraqis. Spokesman P.J. Crowley acknowledged that the cleric's fiery rhetoric had helped fuel anti-American violence, but "what happens with him going forward is a matter for him and the government of Iraq," he said.

"It is not for us to be for or against any particular leader or party in Iraq," Crowley said.

He suggested that Iraq's government and police could contain any new flare-ups of sectarian violence that might be triggered by Sadr's return. "It's one of the reasons we have worked so hard to build up the capacity of Iraqi security forces to handle whatever unrest might occur," Crowley said.

A political journey

Sadr, believed to be in his 30s, shot to prominence in 2003 as the most outspoken Shiite opponent of the U.S. occupation. By 2004, his Mahdi Army was fighting pitched battles with U.S. forces in the streets of Baghdad and Najaf.

He fled to Iran in early 2007 after President George W. Bush's announcement of a surge in U.S. troops, fearing he would be pursued under the terms of a 2004 arrest warrant against him in the killing of a rival Shiite cleric. Sadr said he wanted to become an ayatollah and was studying in Qom, Iran's main center of Shiite Islamic learning. Sadr said he was working under Ayatollah Kazim al-Haeri, an Iranian cleric who became his chief religious guide after Sadr's father, a grand ayatollah, was assassinated by Saddam Hussein's forces in 1999.

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