Tags: al sadr iraq return

US Downplays Al-Sadr's Return to Iraq

Thursday, 06 Jan 2011 09:45 AM


The U.S. yesterday downplayed concerns that the return to Iraq of prominent anti-U.S. cleric Moqtada al-Sadr might spark a replay of sectarian violence or fresh attacks against U.S. interests in Iraq.

State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley called al-Sadr “the leader of an Iraqi political party that won a number of seats in the March 2010 election,” and said “his return is a matter between him and the government of Iraq.”

“It’s not for us to be for or against any particular leader or party in Iraq” under a democratically elected system, Crowley said.

In 2007, the U.S. condemned al-Sadr’s Mahdi militia as the “most dangerous” proponent of sectarian violence in Iraq, fomenting more killings among Iraqis than al-Qaeda. Al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army engaged in battles with Iraqi and U.S. forces starting in 2004, returned to his country yesterday from Iran for the first time in about four years, members of his movement said.

Speaking in Washington, Crowley said the U.S. now hopes that al-Sadr’s party “will play a constructive role” in the coalition government. If sectarian violence were to recur, Crowley said, the U.S. has worked “hard to build up the capability of Iraqi security forces to handle whatever challenge to the government occurs.”

Healed Rifts

Some analysts interpreted al-Sadr’s return as a sign of healed rifts among Shiite factions in Iraq.

His bloc supported Nuri al-Maliki, from Iraq’s Shiite majority, to stay on as prime minister after months of wrangling that followed elections last March 7.

The Sadrists were granted control of eight ministries when al-Maliki formed a coalition government last month. The first deputy speaker, Qusay Suhail, is from al-Sadr’s political bloc. Al-Sadr’s movement won 42 seats in the 325-member parliament in the March vote.

Al-Sadr’s return is “a statement that the fissures between the various Shiite factions have for the moment been healed,” Juan Cole, a professor of history at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, said in a telephone interview. “It’s a sign that people have made up. Moqtada was in exile because his guys were being aggressively arrested by al-Maliki.”

‘Vote of Confidence’

Al-Sadr “is now one of the pillars of the establishment,” Cole added. “Moqtada coming to Najaf is a vote of confidence in the Iraqi government.”

Al-Sadr arrived yesterday in the city of Najaf, cleric Nazar Mohammed said in a telephone interview from Baghdad, and plans to stay in the country permanently, according to Mushreq Nagi, a Sadrist lawmaker, also speaking from the capital. Al- Sadr had been living in the Iranian city of Qom, where he was studying to become an ayatollah.

In April 2007, Al-Sadr’s movement pulled out of al-Maliki’s previous government, in which it had six ministers, because of political conflicts with the prime minister, including objections to the Iraqi leader’s alliance with the U.S. and the presence of American forces.

“Sadr’s return comes as part of efforts to consolidate national unity,” Abdul Hadi al-Hassani, a member of parliament from al-Maliki’s coalition, said in a telephone interview from Baghdad. “There were conflicts previously and we welcome Moqtada al-Sadr’s return, which is important to reactivate a true national partnership to speed up the rebuilding of Iraq.”

The Mahdi Army clashed with Shiite factions in southern Iraq, prompting the U.S. to say in a November 2007 report that al-Sadr’s militia had replaced al-Qaeda’s Iraqi organization “as the most dangerous accelerant of potentially self- sustaining sectarian violence in Iraq.”

U.S. Surge

Among al-Sadr’s reasons for leaving Iraq was the 2007 so- called surge of U.S. forces, in which he risked arrest, Cole said.

“The cost of running a militia ran very high in terms of blood and money,” Cole said. “As the surge progressed and as al-Maliki consolidated his control over the army, his organization turned to politics.”

In 2008, al-Maliki sent in the Iraqi army, backed by U.S. troops, to clear al-Sadr’s fighters from Shiite regions in Baghdad and the south. The confrontations left dozens of people dead and broke relations between al-Sadr and al-Maliki.

Al-Sadr’s militia had fought a major battle with U.S. forces that encircled Najaf in August 2004 before a cease-fire was brokered by Iraq’s senior Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Control of Supporters

Mustafa Alani, director of national security at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai, said al-Sadr returned to Iraq to retain his stature among supporters.

“I think he felt the longer he stayed outside the country the more power he will lose and gradually have less control over his group,” Alani said in a telephone interview.

Iranian interim Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi visited neighboring Iraq yesterday and met with his Iraqi counterpart, Hoshyar Zebari. In a joint press conference in Baghdad, Salehi said Iran supports Iraq’s unity.

Al-Maliki’s government was approved by parliament on Dec. 21 following a wide-ranging deal with all major political groups in the country. The country had remained in a standoff after the legislative elections failed to produce a clear winner.

© Copyright 2011 Bloomberg News. All rights reserved.

© Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

   
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