NAJAF, Iraq – In the latest example of waning American influence in Iraq, anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr returned home Wednesday from Iran, where he had fled in 2007 after his Shiite Muslim militia engaged in years of on-and-off battles with U.S. troops and was blamed for some of the country’s worst sectarian violence.
Al-Sadr’s surprise homecoming comes months after his supporters won 40 seats in the Iraqi parliament, allowing the Iranian-backed cleric to play a decisive role in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki securing a new term late last year. Al-Sadr has long called for the departure of U.S. troops from Iraq and his reappearance will complicate any efforts for American forces to remain beyond the end of the year, when they are obliged to depart under a 2008 security agreement.
Al-Sadr arrived Wednesday in the Shiite holy city of Najaf on a flight from Iran, according to some of his aides. He toured the home of his late father, a legendary cleric who challenged Saddam’s rule before dying in 1999 at the hands of his Sunni-dominated regime. In the evening, al-Sadr went to the hallowed grounds of the Imam Ali Shrine for prayers while police and bodyguards stood guard.
“He will settle down in Iraq, he will not return to Iran,” said an assistant to al-Sadr, who requested anonymity because of sensitivity over the cleric’s movements.
Al-Sadr’s time in self-imposed exile had been rough for his movement, which began asserting itself through its Mahdi Army militia soon after the U.S.-led invasion. In addition to fighting U.S. troops, its forces were involved in death squads targeting Sunni Arabs during the height of the nation’s sectarian violence.
The movement’s influence began to wane after March 2008, when al-Maliki, also a Shiite, ordered a military crackdown against Shiite militias, including the Sadr movement, which had come to rule the city of Basra much like a street gang. Next, the Sadrists were routed in their stronghold, the impoverished Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad.
For American officials, al-Sadr’s sudden appearance in Najaf appeared to be nothing but bad news.
“I don’t think the U.S. Embassy is at all happy about this,” said Kenneth Katzman, an analyst on Iraq for the Congressional Research Service.
“Sadr has made the calculation that U.S. influence is low enough that the U.S. is not going to pressure him, or chase him … or pressure Maliki to arrest him.”