Moqtada al-Sadr, the leader the U.S. military vowed to "capture or kill" back back in 2004, was back in Iraq on Wednesday "welcomed by hundreds of cheering supporters in a return that solidifies the rise of his movement," AP reported.[1]  --  "An official from the Sadrist office in Najaf said al-Sadr's return was permanent." Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Rebecca Santana said.  --  The party he controls has 40 seats in Iraq's parliament and enabled Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to form a new government this year.  --  The New York Times, whose bias against him has always been palpable, heaped pejoratives on him:  "populist . . . the United States’ most enduring foe in Iraq . . . mercurial and enigmatic . . . rabble-rousing . . . an arrest warrant for the killing of a rival cleric in 2003 . . . squat and pudgy . . . a wild card . . . may incite strife . . . synonymous with the black-clad death squads of 2006-7."[2]  --  COMMENT:  If the Times approved of his politics, these qualities might be described differently:  "popular . . . patriotic . . . clever and deep . . . eloquent . . . resourceful . . . solid . . . agile . . . combative . . . tough."  --  An American commentator said that Sadr's "objective is power in Iraq" and we've been saying for years that as Iraq's most authentic expression of nationalism he is likely to attain it....



By Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Rebecca Santana

Associated Press
January 5, 2011

NAJAF, Iraq -- Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, a fierce opponent of the United States and head of Iraq's most feared militia, came home Wednesday after nearly four years in self-imposed exile in Iran, welcomed by hundreds of cheering supporters in a return that solidifies the rise of his movement.

Al-Sadr's presence in Iraq ensures he will be a powerful voice in Iraqi politics as U.S. forces leave the country.  He left Iraq in 2007 somewhat as a renegade, a firebrand populist whose militiamen battled American troops and Iraqi forces.  He returns a more legitimized figure, leading an organized political movement that is a vital partner in the new government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Al-Sadr can wield a bully pulpit to put strong pressure on al-Maliki -- and is likely to demand that no American troops remain beyond their scheduled final withdrawal date at the end of this year.  His return caused trepidation among many Iraqis, particularly Sunnis who remember vividly the sectarian killings carried out by his militia, the Mahdi Army, and believe he is a tool of Iran.

But his supporters were jubilant.

"He is our hero.  We sacrificed for him.  He said 'No' to the Americans and fought the Americans, and he is brave," said Mohammed Ali, among the crowds who turned out to greet al-Sadr in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, south of Baghdad.

Al-Sadr visited the holy shrine of Imam Ali, revered among the country's Shiite majority, wearing a black turban distinguishing him as one of the descendants of Islam's Prophet Muhammad, and surrounded by a phalanx of bodyguards who attempted to hold back a throng of supporters.

He also visited the grave of his father, who was assassinated during Saddam Hussein's rule, before heading to his house.  Dozens of black-clad Mahdi Army members spread out through the neighborhood surrounding his home.

The fiery preacher has legions of followers among Iraq's poorer classes who see him as a champion of their rights against both the Sunnis who dominated Iraq under Saddam and other Shiite political parties such as al-Maliki's Dawa party, which represents more of the Shiite middle class.

Al-Sadr has not been seen publicly in Iraq since 2007 when he left to study Islam in Qom, the seat of Shiite education, as a way to burnish his religious credentials.  He also faced an arrest warrant for his alleged role in assassinating a rival Shiite cleric.

The arrest warrant appeared to be in effect as recently as last March but the chances it would be enforced appear highly unlikely considering the alliance between al-Maliki and al-Sadr.  The public nature of al-Sadr's return -- his first appearance in Iraq since leaving for Iran -- suggested he had little to fear.

The cleric and his followers have parlayed their street credentials earned from battling U.S. forces and a savvy political organizing ability into 40 seats in the 325-member parliament during last March's election.  Their grudging support for al-Maliki secured him a second term.

"The American occupation was always a useful rallying point but his objective is power in Iraq," said Joost Hiltermann from the International Crisis Group.

For many Iraqis, especially the minority Sunnis, al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army will always be synonymous with the vicious sectarian killings that they are blamed for carrying out during the worst of the sectarian violence in 2006 and 2007.

In the Azamiyah neighborhood that used to be a favorite target of the Mahdi Army death squads, residents watched his return with concern.  Ahmed al-Azami, a 43-year-old lawyer, said people fear his militia will once again become active and described al-Sadr as little more than a tool of Iran.

Al-Sadr's return came on the same day that the Iranian foreign minister made his first visit to Iraq.  During a visit to Najaf, the Iranian ambassador, Hassan Danaie, praised al-Sadr.

"His presence will serve stability in Iraq," the ambassador said.

An official from the Sadrist office in Najaf said al-Sadr's return was permanent.  He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, and al-Sadr made no public comments.

Enmity between al-Sadr and al-Maliki runs deep.

Al-Maliki in 2008 launched an offensive against al-Sadr's followers in Baghdad and the southern city of Basra.  The show of force infuriated many of his Shiite allies but also demonstrated al-Maliki's willingness to go after all militias, even those representing his own sect.

But al-Sadr eventually backed al-Maliki for a second term after protracted negotiations following the March elections, likely owing to intense pressure from Iran and in return for concessions.  Iraqi officials have said that hundreds of his followers have been released from jail, a key Sadrist demand.

Iraqis in many southern provinces and parts of eastern Baghdad where the Sadrists dominate have reported intimidation by Sadrist members, who are feeling bolder in light of their newfound political power.  They have tried to enforce their strict Islamic restrictions in areas they traditionally controlled, cracking down on the sale of alcohol or cafes where people smoke water pipes.

Iraqi political analyst Hadi Jalo told the Associated Press that al-Sadr's return underscores the U.S.'s waning political influence in Iraq as U.S. troops prepare to leave the country entirely by the end of this year.

"Now, the anti-U.S. political figures, whether Shiite or Sunnis, are feeling that they are more confident now and their role in shaping Iraq's future is expanding.  The Iraqi government is ready more than ever to accept and include figures known for their anti-U.S. stances," he said.  "The Sadrists now are politically stronger than ever and they are aware of their importance in Iraq's political life."

--Santana reported from Baghad.  Associated Press writer Sameer N. Yacoub in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.



By Anthony Shadid and John Leland

New York Times

January 6, 2011 (posted Jan. 5)

Moktada al-Sadr, the populist cleric who emerged as the United States’ most enduring foe in Iraq, returned Wednesday after more than three years of voluntary exile in Iran in a homecoming that embodied his and his movement’s transition from battling in the streets to occupying the halls of power.

“Long live the leader!” supporters shouted as a grayer Mr. Sadr made his way from the airport in the holy city of Najaf to his home and then to prayers at the gold-domed Shrine of Imam Ali, one of the most sacred places in Shiite Islam. Supporters there hailed his return as another show of strength for a movement that is now more powerful than at any time since the United States invaded in 2003.

“We’re proving to everyone that we’re an important part of Iraq and its politics,” said Jawad Kadhum, a lawmaker with Mr. Sadr’s movement.

Simply by setting foot in Iraq, the mercurial and enigmatic Mr. Sadr complicated the nation’s byzantine politics. He is the rare Iraqi figure who can compete in stature with Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, and the dealings between Mr. Maliki, the arch politician, and Mr. Sadr, the rabble-rousing cleric, may prove a compelling political drama in the year ahead. Mr. Sadr’s return certainly adds another challenge for the United States, given its fear of his movement’s influence and his steadfast opposition to American policies.

Symbolically, at least, his arrival serves as a resonant climax to the resurgence of a movement whose demise has been forecast as often as rain in Iraq’s winter.

Claiming the legacy of Mr. Sadr’s revered father, Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, who was assassinated in 1999, the group forged a martial culture and became one of the most implacable enemies of the American occupation, fighting the United States military twice in 2004. Four years later, the movement was at a nadir: With Mr. Sadr in exile and his militias blamed for some of the war’s worst sectarian carnage, the Iraqi military, with decisive American help, vanquished the group in Baghdad and Basra, Iraq’s second largest city. The divided movement itself seemed a spent force.

But in local elections in 2009, it made impressive gains, foreshadowing the remarkable discipline it showed in national elections last year. The 40 seats it won — second only to Mr. Maliki’s bloc among the Shiite majority — brought it to the center of Iraqi politics and, to its supporters at least, signaled the group’s transition from a militia force to a mainstream political group. Mr. Sadr’s surprise decision in August to support Mr. Maliki, his longtime antagonist, for a second term as prime minister effectively decided the election in Mr. Maliki’s favor. Mr. Sadr’s followers exacted repayment in critical government posts.

“His presence in Iraq, it will strengthen the resolve of our Sadrist brothers to serve the people of Iraq,” said Muhammad al-Khafaji, a former bodyguard of Mr. Sadr’s who won a seat in the election.

Mr. Sadr is a vastly different figure than when he left in 2007 to pursue his clerical studies — and to avoid an arrest warrant for the killing of a rival cleric in 2003.

In his early days, he was often derided as too young, even dimwitted, and his physical appearance — he is squat and pudgy — did little to inspire confidence. The man who appeared on Wednesday had aged, with gray streaking his beard, and he seemed to stride with more confidence. In recent public statements, it appears that he has overcome the awkwardness he displayed in 2003. He now delivers his speeches in a refined, if simple and deliberate Arabic.

It was unclear whether Mr. Sadr would still face criminal charges. Mr. Kadhum, the Sadrist lawmaker, said there was no warrant for the cleric’s arrest. “That was just from the previous government to target the Sadrists, to take us away from the political process,” Mr. Kadhum said.

Hussain al-Saffi, a lawmaker from Mr. Maliki’s bloc, said the government had “no intention or inclination to raise any legal issues related to Mr. Moktada.”

There were conflicting reports, too, about whether Mr. Sadr’s return was permanent or merely a visit. Even some of his own supporters seemed unsure.

“It’s up to His Eminence to stay permanently in Najaf or go back to Iran,” said Balqis al-Khafaji, who was a Sadrist candidate.

Mr. Sadr’s return from Qum, a seat of Shiite scholarship in Iran, had long been rumored. In the weeks before the elections, many of his supporters were convinced that it was imminent. There was no advance word of his trip on Wednesday, and many of his followers learned of his arrival from television reports.

If he stays in Iraq, his impact on politics, at least in the short term, may be more symbolic than real. The movement has performed well in his absence, with its delegates impressing even the movement’s critics with their skills in the negotiations that led to the formation of the government last month. One analyst suggested that the success of an emerging Sadrist leadership inside Iraq might have motivated Mr. Sadr to come back.

“The return has major political significance,” said Hazem al-Amin, a writer with the Arabic newspaper Al Hayat in Beirut. “His party is becoming stronger and bigger, and the need for him to preside over it has grown, especially since there is fear that new leaders within the party could surpass him.”

At the very least, Mr. Sadr becomes one of the few national leaders with the grass-roots support to compete with Mr. Maliki, whom Mr. Sadr’s supporters had derided only recently as an heir to Saddam Hussein and an American lackey. Mr. Sadr’s support for the prime minister came with a high price: hundreds of his followers were released from prison, and the movement was given leadership of a province, positions in the security forces and control of some ministries.

The Sadr-Maliki rivalry may become more intense as the deadline nears for all United States troops to withdraw from Iraq by the end of 2011. Some American officials have suggested that Mr. Maliki would be open to an extension for at least some troops — a position that Mr. Sadr would almost certainly refuse.

The perception of Mr. Sadr as a wild card has led some of his supporters to worry that his return may incite strife. And while, for many, he captured the voice of populist anger against the American occupation, he remains — especially to Iraq’s Sunni minority — synonymous with the black-clad death squads of 2006-7.

“I don’t think Moktada will bring good with him to Iraq,” said Muhammad al-Adhami, a government worker in Adhamiya, a largely Sunni area in Baghdad.

--Reporting was contributed by Duraid Adnan, Yasir Ghazi and Omar al-Jawoshy from Baghdad; Nada Bakri from Beirut, Lebanon; and Iraqi employees of The New York Times from Baghdad and Najaf, Iraq.