Iraq: Preparing for the Return of Moqtada al-Sadr

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Thaier al-Sudani / Reuters (L) Fars News / Reuters (R)

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, left, and Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr

Moqtada al-Sadr may be Washington's biggest nightmare in Iraq, but the nationalist cleric who led an insurgency against U.S. troops and is currently studying in Iran remains a hero to millions of his Shi'ite followers. That fact has allowed him to use the democratic process to return to center stage of Iraqi politics: When Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki unveiled his new cabinet on Dec. 21, Sadr's lieutenants were awarded eight of the 29 positions announced — a reflection of the fact that Maliki would not be premier without Sadr's support.

It was Sadr's family name, first and foremost, that propelled him to the forefront of Shi'ite politics in Iraq after the U.S. invasion — his father, Grand Ayatullah Mohammad Mohammad Sadiq al-Sadr, had been a pillar of resistance to Saddam Hussein inside Iraq, before his murder in Najaf in 1999. Unlike most of the other contenders for the mantle of Shi'ite leadership who had gone into exile, the Sadr brand was associated with the far harder path of fighting the regime from inside Iraq.

Abu Aqeel al-Saedi, a native of Sadr City, east Baghdad's sprawling Shi'a slum, was close to the slain ayatullah. He remembers young Moqtada as an unexceptional boy, but "as an adult, Moqtada is much more." Says Saedi: "He is a political and religious leader and he inherited his father's awareness and added to that his experience during the struggle in Iraq after 2003 [fighting] the occupier on all fronts."

Now just 37, Moqtada al-Sadr has had to grow up fast. The baby-faced ayatollah-in-waiting has evolved from the head of a rag-tag insurgency with a vicious sectarian track record into the leader of a sophisticated populist political machine that won a king-making share of parliamentary seats in this year's national elections. And that could be just the beginning. Sadr, who is currently studying to become an ayatollah, may be playing the best long game among Iraqi politicians, setting the stage for the triumphant return to Iraq he has vowed to make when the U.S. is finally gone. That would be December 31 of 2011, according to the Status of Forces Agreement concluded between Maliki and the Bush Administration two years ago, and Sadr is unlikely to countenance any extension.

But even then, his return may not be immediate. "Moqtada will need to finish his studies in Iran to become an ayatollah, and when he finishes he will return to help the Iraqi poor," says Rasim Al-Marawani, a senior official in the Sadrists cultural affairs office. "He will be a religious leader like his father. He will watch out for us and advise us about the political situation. All the Mahdi Army [the ostensibly disabanded Shi'ite militia], politicians, and the regular people will follow any orders from Moqtada."

Despite his exile, Sadr's presence is acutely felt in Baghdad, and not only through the implementation in Shi'ite neighborhoods of his edicts such as a call to ban bars, nightclubs and liquor stores. Maliki is scrambling to cobble together a government by the constitutionally mandated Dec. 25 deadline. In Iraq's power game, cabinet positions were allocated to reward loyalists and placate adversaries. And having delivered his party's 39 seats, allowing Maliki to break the nine-month stalemate and eclipse his strongest rival, former U.S.-backed Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, Sadr expected payback.

Reports suggest that the number of Sadrist prisoners in Iraq fall from 3,000 to 1,500 in the past five months. But the movement's biggest rewards came in the allocation of cabinet seats. Even though his supporters are unlikely to get the sensitive defense or interior portfolio's yet to be announced and were passed over for the oil ministry, they are well represented in such service ministries as health, electricity, transportation and education — a powerful platform for patronage to expand his support base ahead of the next election. The U.S. has warned it may rethink cooperating with Sadrist-led ministries, but so far the Sadrists have refused to meet with even low-level American officials.

Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group says neither side deserves more blame than the other. "The Sadrists have an unsavory record, and the U.S. lacks flexibility in Iraq," Hiltermann explains. "The Sadrists have staked their reputation on their ... resistance to the U.S. military presence in Iraq, which is to end within a year. The U.S. doesn't want to deal with a movement that it sees — wrongly — as controlled by Iran and intent on fighting U.S. troops. Perhaps in a year's time, both sides will have a more realistic view of one another, with the U.S. withdrawal and the Sadrists running ministries in a manner that hopefully will allow people to forget their earlier tenure of running service ministries."

The "earlier tenure" refers to allegations that the Sadrists had used Ministry of Health, which they controlled in 2006 and 2007, in pursuit of an often violent sectarian agenda. That legacy has many Sunnis fearing their return to power in Maliki's government. "There is widespread concern about the Sadrists using control of service ministries to create a state within a state," says Sean Kane, a former U.N. official in Baghdad now with the U.S. Institute for Peace. Still, he acknowledges they're an integral part of Iraq's political fabric.

"The Sadrists are the political representatives of the country's potentially largest demographic group: its young and growing urban Shi'a population. If Iraq is ever going to chart its own course relatively free of foreign influence it will be because groups like the Sadrists' greater emphasis on Iraqi nationalism over a belief that their class or sect should rule Iraq," said Kane. Still, some fear that the group will emulate Lebanon's Hizballah, combining politics and service work with expanding the power of its militia.

Ahmed Hajad, a former Mahdi Army fighter who now works as a grocer in the heavily Shi'a area of Numaniya, says he stopped fighting two years ago. "The order came to me and my group, so we put down our weapons and and stopped hunting U.S. forces in Kut," says Hajad. "Now, I am living a normal life, but at any moment I would love to fight again if it's good for Iraq. I understand my life is dedicated to Moqtada al-Sadr and I take my orders from him. When Moqtada comes back he will be even more powerful religious leader. For us and our families, his word will be like law."