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US, Iraq wary as cleric Moqtada al-Sadr returns to prominence

Iraq has seen many influential events transpire in its recent blighted history but just how influential the return of Moqtada al-Sadr, the firebrand cleric and militia leader, will turn out to be remains to be seen.

Radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr

Al-Sadr ended his self-imposed exile to return to Iraqi politics

Sadr, the Shiite religious leader who violently opposed the US-led invasion and occupation through his feared Mahdi Army militia, returned to his home city of Najaf last week after ending a self-imposed exile where he had reportedly been pursuing religious studies in the Iranian holy city of Qom since leaving Iraq in 2007.

The man who was identified by the Pentagon in 2006 as the biggest threat to stability in Iraq returns at a time when his country is once again experiencing a period of uncertainty. His homecoming has divided opinion between those who say Sadr will bring increased stability and those predicting a return to conflict and violence.

Those who see him as a stabilizing influence in Iraq believe Sadr's motives lie in the consolidation of his supporters' power in Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki government which was approved by parliament on December 21.

After forging an alliance with the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, another Shiite group with links to Iran, the Sadrist bloc won 39 out of 325 parliamentary seats in the legislative election last year.

Initially backing Maliki in 2006 before turning against him and ordering his followers to pull out of the premier's cabinet in 2007, Sadr eventually threw his weight behind Maliki last year when the premier finally managed to form a post-election government acceptible to all factions. Sadrists now occupy six cabinet posts in the new national unity cabinet, as well as one of Iraq's two deputy parliament speaker positions.

Cleric returns to oversee political gains

Mahdi Army fighters are seen in Basra, Iraq, Saturday, March 29, 2008.

Sadr's Mahdi Army battled US and Iraqi forces in major cities

"Sadr's primary motivation is to consolidate the political gains his movement made in the March 2010 parliamentary election," Dr. Kristian Ulrichsen, a Middle East expert at the London School of Economics and Political Science, told Deutsche Welle.

"Had he not returned to Iraq the danger was that he risked becoming marginalized and peripheral to the new political settlement in post-American Iraq."

Joost Hiltermann, the deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa program at the International Crisis Group, believes that while Sadr has returned to shore up the fledgling leadership, he is playing a long-odds game with his ultimate goal being full control of the Iraqi government through his Shiite bloc.

"This is no longer the time for politics by remote control but of tight discipline as a strategy of outmaneuvering Maliki in the long run, by extending the influence of the Sadrists via the ministries under their control. He also wants to expose Maliki for his inability to render services to the people," Hiltermann told Deutsche Welle.

Sadr's anti-American rhetoric raises concerns of conflict

Radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr

The US is wary of the long-term influence of Sadr's return

Those who fear that Sadr's homecoming could spark a return to violence could point to his first major speech, made in Najaf a few days after he ended his exile. In an impassioned address, Sadr called on Iraqis to resist the US "occupation" by all means necessary.

He urged Iraqis to "resist the occupier, by military resistance, and all the means of resistance" and led the crowd in a chant of "No, no to America!" Sadr also made it clear that any violence should not be directed against Iraqis: "Our hand will not touch any Iraqi," he said. "We are one people."

"Right now it isn't clear whether Sadr will bring stability or chaos," Middle East political and security risk analyst Ranj Alaaldin told Deutsche Welle. "One argument is that his return ensures the Sadrist militias are disciplined and controlled. Conversely, his speech suggested all options are on the table."

"Few dispute the argument that it is better to have the Sadrists in government rather than out of it and causing trouble - but only if they do it the right way."

While admitting that what they heard in Sadr's speech is nothing new, the Americans are still wary of the cleric's return but have had to accept it as their own influence in Iraq decreases and a need for coherent, stable self-governance takes precedence.

About 50,000 US troops remain in Iraq, but are required under a security accord between Baghdad and Washington to withdraw by the end of this year.

US sees Sadr's homecoming as a necessary evil

"US officials have expressed their opposition to Sadr's return and argued that he has not yet renounced violence as a tactic," Ulrichsen said. "US officials will not be pleased that an actor so hostile to their interests has been allowed to return and become a significant player in Iraqi politics so close to their own departure from Iraq."

Hiltermann said that the US had had no choice but to accept his return as a reality, even if Washington wasn't pleased about it.

"They remember the past, when Sadr's Mahdi Army militia was in the forefront of attacks against US forces. But times are different now. I don't think he poses a threat to US forces in Iraq, unless there was a suggestion that these would stay beyond the end of the year. Such a scenario Sadr will try to prevent through his role in the new government."

Ranj Alaaldin believes the US should be looking at the long-term potential influence of Sadr's return rather than the immediate euphoria being stirred up in his supporters.

"The US will want to make sure his return does not spell instability for Iraq, particularly since the country has made significant security gains in recent years," he said. "In the longer run, the US will be concerned that Sadr's emboldened position will further reduce its influence in the country and act against its strategic interests in the region."

Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Rob Mudge

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