In February 2007, Moqtada al-Sadr left Iraq for Iran. Sadr was afraid that the U.S. was going to target him as part of the Surge, and he was also losing control over his militia, the Mahdi Army, which had grown exponentially since the start of the sectarian civil war far beyond anything he’d imagined. He thought religious training in Iran would reform his image, and give him greater standing amongst the public. That same month, Sadr actually tried to go back to his hometown, Najaf, but turned around and went back to Iran when he heard that U.S. checkpoints had been established along the road to the city. In May, he did make it back, and even gave a sermon on May 15 in Kufa, Najaf. Sadr might have actually been in the country for several months before that. General Ray Odierno, who was then General David Petraeus’ number two in Iraq, said that Sadr was in Iraq to re-organize his movement that was increasingly fracturing.
On March 29, 2008 Sadr was seen again, this time in an interview with Al-Jazeera because his movement was in crisis again. At the time, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had launched an offensive against the Sadrists in Basra, which spread to the rest of southern Iraq and Baghdad. Sadr was asked by Al-Jazeera whether the Mahdi Army was still under his control, and he said that the majority was. He then went on to call for Arab governments to support him as the legitimate opposition to the U.S. occupation in Iraq. The next month there was a report that he came back to Iraq temporarily, probably to assess Maliki’s offensive. What ended up happening was that the government crushed most of his militia, hundreds of his fighters were killed or arrested, and the Mahdi Army leadership went into hiding or fled to Iran like Sadr himself.
Sadr’s March 2008 interview with Al-Jazeera
After those setbacks, Sadr began rehabilitating his image. That came in preparation for the March 2010 parliamentary elections. First, in April 2009 Sadr traveled to Turkey where he met top officials, and members of his own movement. Those included Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Recept Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul, along with 70 top leaders from the Sadr Trend. Sadr told the press that he had given up on the armed struggle against the United States, and that his followers would be concentrating upon politics. One member said that Sadr would be returning to Iraq soon. In July, Sadr was seen again, this time visiting Syrian politicians in Damascus. He went back a year later to meet with President Bashar al-Assad, and Iyad Allawi to talk about forming a new government after the March 2010 election. All of those meetings were meant to show the new Sadr. One who was not only an influential man in Iraq, but a regional figure as well, capable of having high level discussions with men like President Assad and Premier Erdogan.
Sadr meeting with Allawi in Damascus, July 2010. It was meetings like these that were meant to show Sadr in a new light as a political leader in Iraq (New York Times)
The Sadrists’ surprising showing in the 2010 vote, and their role as kingmakers in assuring Prime Minister Maliki of a second term in office, led to Sadr’s return to Iraq. 2007-2008 were years of crisis for the Sadr Trend, with militiamen breaking away and preying upon their own people, Iran trying to co-opt his movement and control Sadr, while Maliki went from an ally to an enemy. Rather than making a dramatic return during those periods, Sadr is now coming back when his movement has proven itself to be a force in Iraqi politics. Part of the reason why he left in 2007, was to rehabilitate his image and movement. That played a role in his 2009 appearances where he met with regional leaders in Turkey and Syria. He probably feels that this endeavor now has to be done in person, rather than from Iran, which is why he is back. Whether he can stick to politics is his next challenge. Iraq does have a new status quo where most parties are focusing upon parliament, the premier, and the cabinet, which offers many opportunities for Sadr, but he could also fail unless he and his followers show more discipline and maturity than they did in the past. That breakdown was why he left the country in 2007, and whether he stays this time may be determined by whether he is successful or not.
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