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When notorious Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr recently returned to Iraq from self-imposed exile in Iran, he was warmly greeted by his Shiite supporters. Yet, for those who had been subjugated to the brutal sectarian violence unleashed by al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army, his reappearance has stoked fears over the long-term survival of Iraq’s fledgling democracy.
Further feeding into this concern has been the specter of Iran’s hand in orchestrating al-Sadr’s return to Iraq. As it has demonstrated in Lebanon with Hezbollah, its Shiite proxy terrorist organization, Iran has proven quite experienced in using such proxies to bring down democratic governments.
Of course, since the early days of the US invasion in 2003, Iraqis are all too familiar with Iran’s deadly and well-documented role in fomenting sectarian violence. In addition to arming insurgents to kill American troops, Iran sent in hundreds of its Islamic Revolutionary Guards to train Shiite death squads between 2006 and 2007 in an attempt to incite a civil war between Sunnis and Shiites — efforts which killed thousands of Sunni Iraqis.
Al-Sadr’s own genocidal history was exhibited from 2004-2008 when he waged a terrifying war against US coalition forces and wreaked unspeakable acts of ethnic cleansing and mass murder upon the Iraqi people. By the time he fled to Iran in 2007 during the height of the American surge, he had earned the infamous distinction as Iraq’s most prolific killer.
While much of al-Sadr’s time in Iran is shrouded in mystery, he was reported to have been mentored by a bevy of Iranian hard-line clergymen, including Ayatollah Kazem Haeri and Ayatollah Mohammed-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, the latter being the spiritual mentor of Iranian President Ahmadinejad.
So, it was against this backdrop that al-Sadr arrived in the southern Iraqi city of Najaf where he initially tried to downplay any concerns that he was either an Iranian puppet or a re-energized jihadist. Speaking to a mosque full of supporters, al-Sadr tossed aside his trademark incendiary rhetoric for a more restrained and conciliatory message: “Whatever struggle happened between brothers, let us forget about it and turn the page forever and live united.”
Unfortunately, not everyone was convinced of al-Sadr’s new image as a moderate peacemaker. That skepticism was best summed up by one man who said of al-Sadr and his religious-civic organization, Mumahidoon: “They shave their mustaches and leave their beards long … we call them the Taliban. His return back to Iraq will have nothing to do with strengthening the security and stability because their thoughts are based on the opposite of that.”
As if to confirm that point, al-Sadr, addressing the same crowd, subsequently launched into the real purpose of his return to Iraq: “We say to the Iraq government: Enough occupation and enough slavery! We are still resisting the occupation through armed, cultural, and all kinds of resistance … against our joint enemy: America, Israel, and Britain.”
Al-Sadr’s overt concern toward US occupation seemed somewhat curious given that the United States remains on track to complete the scheduled withdrawal of its remaining 47,000 troops by December 31, 2011. Moreover, the Iraqi government, led by Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki and his Shiite State of Law bloc, is publicly in accord with the pullout.
Yet, despite that, serious reservations still remain about the viability of a complete US withdrawal from Iraq. These concerns come most notably from Sunnis, fearful of attacks from Iraq’s Shiite majority, as well as from Kurds fearful of losing their autonomous northern regions. To that end, US officials have remained confident that an extension to the timetable will be negotiated.
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