Al-Sadr Returns to Iraq

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The Iraqi firebrand Moqtada Al-Sadr has returned to Iraq almost four years after his last public appearance in the country. While he never disengaged from the political process in Iraq — witness his role as kingmaker in the recent discussions over the future of Prime Minister Maliki — his self-imposed exile to Iran in 2007 left behind a void. Despite recent threat to hold al-Sadr accountable for the killing of Abdul Majid al-Khoei, the former secretary-general of the Imam al-Khoei Foundation in London who was assassinated in 2003 in Najaf by Sadr’s forces, with his return he has quickly filled that void. Many wonder what this means for Iraq, its neighbors and of course the United States.

Local news reports covering al-Sadr’s first speech to his followers emphasized his demands that “the Iraqi government fulfill its commitment for the withdrawal of the foreign occupier from Iraq soonest,’ adding that his Sadrist Trend ‘will support the government if it acts to serve the people, achieve security and services.’ Sadr also called on the Iraqi government to ‘release thousands of Iraqi detainees locked in American prison, especially those belong to the Sadrist Trend.’”

Writing for Al Arabiya, Mohamad Bazzi suggests that “Mr. al-Sadr represents the triumph of a defiant brand of Shiism in Iraq. Because Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and other senior theologians shun direct political involvement, they create a power vacuum among Iraqi Shiites — one that Mr. al-Sadr is eager to fill. He wants to be both a respected cleric and a political broker. But his ascendance threatens to stoke sectarian tensions in Iraq: his followers were responsible for some of the worst atrocities against Sunnis during the country’s recent civil war.”

Some foreign observers in the region have asserted that, “despite reports that Muqtada al-Sadr, the rebellious clergyman who returned to Iraq this week after four years in Iran, has adopted a ‘moderate stance,’ his speech at a mosque in Najaf on Saturday proved quite otherwise. He is, still, militantly anti-American, and he’s served notice on Prime Minister Maliki’s government that any deal with the United States to extend the American troop deployment in Iraq past the end of 2011 is out of the question.…It’s clear that [al-Sadr is] holding on to the possibility of resorting once again to armed force if Maliki strays off the reservation. Of course, Maliki, too, is close to Iran and doesn’t want to do anything to incur Iran’s wrath, so American leverage on Maliki will become less and less as U.S. troops draw down.”

Others are equally pessimistic about what al-Sadr’s return means for the U.S. presence and objectives in the country. Writing for The Guardian, Michael Boyle opines that, “Once considered an irredeemable enemy of the Iraqi government, Sadr recently found himself playing the role of kingmaker in ensuring its survival. In October, he helped to forge the political compromise that restored Nouri al-Maliki to power by throwing his support by the Maliki’s State of Law party to form a governing coalition.…That Sadr’s return holds out the prospect of a return to violence or increasingly illiberal government in Iraq is clear. But it is also now clear that events in Iraq have slipped out of the hands of the United States, turning America into a bystander in the aftermath of a war of its own making.”

But what exactly are al-Sadr’s real intentions? On this question, some have suggested that “he was studying to advance in the clerical hierarchy, with the ultimate goal of becoming an ayatollah, though he’s far too young and unschooled to achieve that rank soon. According to Babak Rahimi, an Iran analyst, Sadr may been studying under Kazem Haeri, an ayatollah in Qom, Iran, who has long been Sadr’s mentor of sorts, or he may have been studying under ultra-conservative Ayatollah Mohammed-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, the spiritual mentor of President Ahmadinejad, who is the hardest of hardliners in Iran.…In any case, said Rahimi, Sadr was ‘trained under someone with hardline influence’ and ‘therefore he has the backing of Tehran.’”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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