In the latest example of waning American influence in Iraq, anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada Sadr returned home from Iran, where he had gone in 2007 after his Shiite Muslim militia engaged in years of on-and-off battles with U.S. troops and was blamed for some of the country’s worst sectarian violence.
Sadr’s surprise homecoming comes months after his supporters won 40 seats in the Iraqi parliament, allowing the Iranian-backed cleric to play a decisive role in Prime Minister Nouri Maliki securing a new term late last year after a lengthy period of political deadlock. Sadr has long called for the departure of U.S. troops from Iraq and his reappearance will complicate any efforts for American forces to remain beyond the end of the year, when they are obliged to depart under a 2008 security agreement.
It remains unclear among both U.S. and Iraqi officials what role any remaining U.S. troops would serve next year. Sadr’s long-expressed desire for a full withdrawal coincides with the wishes of Shiite-run Iran, which since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein increasingly has sought to exert influence over its neighbor.
Sadr arrived Wednesday afternoon in the Shiite holy city of Najaf on a flight from Iran, according to some of his aides. He toured the home of his late father, a legendary cleric who challenged Hussein’s rule before dying in 1999 at the hands of his Sunni-dominated regime.
In the evening, Sadr went to the hallowed grounds of the Imam Ali shrine for prayers while police and bodyguards stood guard.
“Peace be upon the prophet Muhammad and hasten the Mahdi’s appearance,” followers shouted outside the shrine, before Sadr slipped out the door of the massive compound and headed back to his father’s house.
“He will settle down in Iraq, he will not return to Iran,” said an assistant to Sadr, who requested anonymity because of sensitivity over the cleric’s movements.
Some followers in Najaf expressed surprise at Sadr’s sudden return. Members of his movement had publicly insisted that the cleric, in his 30s, had never left Iraq and had only gone into hiding. But members have acknowledged in unguarded and private moments that the young cleric had taken up residence in the Iranian seminary city of Qom for religious studies in order to improve his stature in the hierarchy of Iraq’s clergy.
Sadr’s time in self-imposed exile had been rough for his movement, which began asserting itself through its Mahdi Army militia soon after the U.S.-led invasion. In addition to fighting U.S. troops, its forces were involved in death squads targeting Sunni Arabs during the height of the nation’s sectarian violence.
The movement’s influence began to wane after March 2008, when Prime Minister Maliki, also a Shiite, ordered a military crackdown against Shiite militias, including the Sadr movement, which had come to rule the city of Basra much like a street gang. Next, the Sadrists were routed in their stronghold, the impoverished Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad.
But the Sadr forces regrouped and won the 40 parliamentary seats in the March 2010 national elections, providing Sadr a pivotal role in the next government’s formation.
For American officials, Sadr’s sudden appearance in Najaf appeared to be nothing but bad news.
“I don’t think the U.S. Embassy is at all happy about this,” said Kenneth Katzman, an analyst on Iraq for the Congressional Research Service. “Sadr has made the calculation that U.S. influence is low enough that the U.S. is not going to pressure him, or chase him … or pressure Maliki to arrest him.”
Sadr has been trailed by an arrest warrant in the 2003 death of a rival Shiite cleric. The warrant was first announced by the Americans in April 2004 and a rumor floated by Sadr’s political rivals last year that the warrant had been activated may have kept the cleric out of the country for longer than he intended.
Katzman speculated that Iran might have encouraged Sadr to return now in an attempt to promote the idea of American weakness and Tehran’s growing influence.
Few leading Iraqi politicians had an immediate comment on Sadr’s return, as if none wished to offend during his first day back.
“Generally we consider him as a great political leader,” said Batool Farouq, a member of Maliki’s parliament bloc. ‘He wants to send a message that he does not have any problems with the current government or any other sides. In fact we were surprised by the visit. If we had known earlier we could have received him, if he wished.”
Another Iraqi willing to speak, former national security advisor Mowaffak Rubaie, predicted Sadr’s return would cause his grass roots, populist movement to grow.
“I believe his share in the next election will be bigger than now because his presence among his followers will give them huge inspiration,” Rubaie said. “He is not only a political leader but he is also a spiritual leader as well.”
In the runup to Sadr’s pivotal endorsement of Maliki, his followers were showered with patronage, including the release of many Sadrist detainees, officer positions in the Iraqi security forces and the governorship of the southern province of Maysan. His backing also came after intense pressure from Iran, according to Iraqi political figures.
In recent weeks, some new tensions have emerged between Maliki and the Sadr bloc. The Sadrists have grumbled that Maliki has not delivered on expected posts. They had demanded the post of deputy prime minister and secretary of the Cabinet but were thwarted.
“Maliki is trying to withdraw from his commitments to us,” said Abu Baqr, a former Mahdi Army commander and Sadr movement official. “He is hesitating to give things to us.”
Whatever the case, Sadr is likely to play a key role in one of the major debates of the coming year: whether the United States can convince the Iraqi government to allow it to keep at least some troops in the country beyond 2011. An extension would require the approval of the Iraqi parliament; Maliki, for his part, has said in recent interviews that he expects all the troops to be gone by the end of December.
The U.S. Embassy has said it could still offer military trainers under the umbrella of the State Department, but it is far from clear whether any such agreement could be made without Iraqi parliamentary approval. The number of trainers probably would be in the range of 200 to 1,000 troops, a Western advisor to the Iraqi government said. But the Sadrists, who hold the post of deputy parliament speaker, could work to scuttle any agreement, even if it was to train Iraqis on newly purchased weapons and military equipment.
“If they want to keep several hundred [troops], they will have to enter serious negotiations with the government and this has to be ratified by the council of representatives. With the current political situation in the country, I can’t see this happening unless we see considerable changes from now until the end of the year,” Rubaie said.
Special correspondent Fakhrildeen reported from Najaf and Times staff writers Parker and Jaff from Baghdad.