On January 5, 2011 Moqtada al-Sadr returned to Iraq. He flew into his hometown of Najaf from Iran. Initial reports were unsure whether this was a short-stay or whether Sadr was moving back to Iraq for the long haul. The Washington Post quoted a spokesman for the Sadrists office in Najaf that Sadr was back for good. His arrival in Iraq set off all kinds of speculation about what it means for his movement and Nouri al-Maliki’s newly seated government.
Sadr comes back to Iraq on the coattails of his party’s accomplishments in the 2010 parliamentary elections. The Sadr trend won the most seats within the Iraqi National Alliance, walking away with 39 out of 70 seats. The Sadrists had proposed the National Alliance back in August 2009 to try to re-unite the fractured Shiite parties that had run together as the United Iraqi Alliance in the 2005 balloting. The list would eventually include the Sadrists, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), the Fadhila Party, the National Reform Trend, and independents. They were not successful however, in convincing Maliki and his State of Law to join them. After the March election, the Sadrists became one of the strongest opponents to a second term for the premier. Sadr went as far as to call Maliki a liar in April. Then suddenly, the party made an about face and came out for the prime minister on October 1. That made the Sadrists kingmakers as they assured Maliki that he would stay in office. In return, the premier has released an estimated 1,500 Sadrists from jail, given the movement six ministries, the deputy speaker of parliament, and the governorship of Maysan. Being in the ascendancy, Sadr decided it was the right time to end his self-imposed exile in Iran so that he could lead his movement in person, rather than by proxy and through statements.
Sadr’s return also shows the new alliance with Maliki. Sadr still has an arrest warrant hanging over his head for the murder of Ayatollah Abdul al-Khoei. Al-Khoei was a moderate Shiite cleric who the U.S. was hoping would help them in Iraq. (1) In early April 2003 he flew into the country from exile in England. A few days later, Sadrists stabbed him to death inside the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf. The move was an attempt to assert themselves as the upstart Shiites against the establishment clergy. An Iraqi court quickly issued an arrest warrant for Sadr, along with two of his lieutenants, Mustafa al-Yacoubi and Riyad al-Nouri. Yacoubi was later arrested by U.S. forces, which set off the first Sadrist uprising in southern Iraq in April 2004. The case is still pending, but a newly elected Sadrist parliamentarian dismissed it, saying that it was made by a previous government that was out to get the Sadr movement, and deny them a role in post-Saddam politics. A lawmaker from State of Law also said that the government had no intention of following through with this issue. This quid pro quo could cause problems for Maliki later on. The prime minister built most of his current standing upon his crackdown on the Mahdi Army in early 2008. His list is called State of Law, which he claimed brought security and stability to the country. Now the premier is ignoring the law, by not arresting Sadr, and letting him return to Iraq as payoff for backing him in the government formation process. It shows that politics trumps justice in the new Iraq.
What Sadr does next is the big question. He’s supposed to make his first address after arriving in Najaf on January 8, to lay out his program. Some early targets for the Sadrist camp are probably finding jobs for their followers through the ministries they control, asserting themselves in parliament, and building up patronage systems to bring in new recruits. Sadr can only hope to build upon his success, as he definitely aspires to be a national leader. He could become a rival to Maliki without holding any official office. That will only happen if the Trend continues to focus upon politics and services. That’s always been a problem for Sadr. In 2005 when he tried to join the new government after the U.S. handed over sovereignty, his movement split, and he ended up turning his back on politics to try to win back the street. That backfired as well as his followers became predators on their own people after they’d purged many Sunnis from various neighborhoods across central Iraq. Whether his movement will have more discipline this time and remain focused upon building up their standing through legitimate means is what needs to be closely monitored and analyzed.
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