The Return of Moqtada Al-Sadr

What the reappearance of the anti-American cleric means for Iraq's fragile democracy.

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.

Now, however, al-Sadr’s arrival onto the scene gravely complicates the matter. For starters, even if Maliki were so inclined to grant an extension, he is in little position to publicly confront al-Sadr over the issue given his craven pursuit of al-Sadr’s support after the March 2010 Iraqi parliamentary elections.

When those elections had produced no clear winner between Maliki’s Shiite-led State of Law bloc and the Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc, the Iraqi government was thrown into a state of political limbo, with both sides working feverishly to form a ruling government.

In October 2010, Maliki then traveled to Iran to meet with al-Sadr in an attempt to garner his support to break the political logjam. Despite al-Sadr’s long criticism of Maliki’s close relationship with the United States and Maliki’s backing of a 2008 US-Iraqi offensive that crippled his Mahdi militia, al-Sadr still endorsed Maliki for Prime Minister.

However, the subsequent Sadr-Maliki pact was contingent on Maliki enforcing the December 31 pullout date. So, with deal in hand, Maliki was reappointed Prime Minister in November 2010.

To many, al-Sadr’s return to Iraq is nothing more than an on-site attempt to ensure Maliki’s adherence to that promise. While some may discount al-Sadr’s ability to enforce Maliki’s compliance, others see al-Sadr in possession of some formidable influence.

First, al-Sadr’s holds a strong political hand, evidenced by his political party winning 40 out of 325 parliamentary seats in the March 2010 election. Moreover, eight of his allies have been given seats in Maliki’s cabinet.

Second, al-Sadr holds lethal clout as well. Although his Mahdi Army--which once had an estimated 60,000 fighters--was disbanded in 2008 as part of a ceasefire agreement with the Iraqi Army, it was replaced with a reportedly more elite force, the Promised Day Brigade (PDB). While it is unknown how many fighters are in the PDB or their effectiveness, al-Sadr has never shied away from using military force to achieve his political aims.

Finally, al-Sadr enjoys a long and deadly working relationship with both his Iranian benefactors and with Hezbollah, one begun when al-Sadr and members of his Mahdi militia went to Teheran to receive military training in 2004. It was at that time al-Sadr adopted the Hezbollah organizational model. Like Hezbollah, there is fear that al-Sadr hopes to morph his movement from a pure terrorist outfit into a quasi-political organization, one with a well-financed armed component.

Of course, there are those who say al-Sadr’s connection to Iran and Hezbollah is overblown, arguing that al-Sadr requires neither group to fuel his anti-American, anti-Western agenda. While that may or may not be true, what is evident is the immediacy al-Sadr’s reemergence has already had on Iraqi discourse. Days after his arrival, over 2,000 al-Sadr supporters took to the streets to protest the US occupation.

It was the first concrete sign that al-Sadr was truly back. As the Iraqi people have unfortunately learned the hard way, that’s a terrifying prospect.

Frank Crimi is a writer living in San Diego, California. You can read more of Frank's work at his blog, or contact him at [email protected].