Iraq's Sadr: back in Iraq and the spotlightBaghdad (AFP) Jan 8, 2011 - Moqtada al-Sadr -- a fierce critic of the US-led invasion, chief of a once-feared militia, Shiite religious leader and political kingmaker, all in one -- is back home in Iraq and in the limelight. Sadr, who has a grey-streaked, bushy black beard and wears the black turban of a "sayyid," or descendant of Prophet Mohammed, drew a boisterous crowd of up to 20,000 people to her him speak in his home city of Najaf on Saturday. Before a giant poster of his father, a revered cleric gunned down in 1999, launching his own renown, Sadr kept to an old theme: "Say after me: 'No, no to America!" But he also emphasised the importance of Iraqi unity. Sadr left Iraq at the beginning of 2007, according to US and Iraqi officials, and had reportedly been pursuing religious studies in the Iranian holy city of Qom. He returned to Najaf on Wednesday. His return has divided opinion, with some Baghdadis saying it will bring increased stability and others predicting conflict and violence.
The controversial Sadr, who is believed to be in his 30s, gained widespread popularity among Shiites in the months after the 2003 US-led invasion, which he soon began to sharply denounce. His Mahdi Army militia later battled American and Iraqi government forces in several bloody confrontations, and he was identified by the Pentagon in 2006 as the biggest threat to stability in Iraq. The Mahdi Army -- which was once estimated to have up to 60,000 members -- became the most active and feared armed Shiite group, and was blamed by Washington for death-squad killings of thousands of Sunnis. But in August 2008, Sadr suspended the activities of the Mahdi Army after major US and Iraqi assaults on its strongholds in Baghdad and southern Iraq in the spring of that year. Following the ceasefire, US military commanders said Sadr's action had been instrumental in helping bring about a significant decrease in the levels of violence across Iraq.
During his self-imposed exile, Sadr demonstrated that he could still pull powerful political strings, even though he was out of the country. After throwing his weight behind Shiite politician Nuri al-Maliki in 2006, ensuring he became prime minister, Sadr then ordered his followers to pull out of the premier's cabinet the next year, almost bringing down the government. Sadr's bloc contested the March 7, 2010 legislative election in an alliance with the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, another Shiite group with links to Iran. The cleric's bloc won 39 out of 325 parliamentary seats, with Sadrists widely seen as "kingmakers" after the inconclusive election. Sadr said after the poll that he had "tried not to have a veto against anyone, but the masses had a veto against Maliki."
But his movement later lifted its veto over Maliki becoming prime minister for a second term, and Sadr eventually backed him when the premier finally formed a post-election government which took office last month. Sadr's bloc now holds six cabinet posts in Maliki's national unity cabinet, as well as one of Iraq's two deputy parliament speaker positions. Despite only rare appearances in public, the cleric is idolized by millions of Shiites, especially in Najaf where he has his headquarters and in the impoverished Baghdad neighbourhood of Sadr City. Sadr City is named for Moqtada's father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, who was killed along with two of Moqtada's brothers in 1999 by gunmen allegedly sent by now executed dictator Saddam Hussein.
According to an AFP photographer, about 20,000 people turned out to hear Sadr speak, waving a forest of Iraqi flags and pictures of the cleric.
"Iraq passed through difficult circumstances, which made everyone cry, and did not satisfy anyone except our joint enemy -- America, Israel and Britain," Sadr said.
"So say after me: 'No, no to America!'" said Sadr, who left Iraq at the beginning of 2007, according to US and Iraqi officials, and had reportedly been pursuing religious studies in the Iranian holy city of Qom.
The crowd did so, but in voices the cleric deemed to be too muted.
Sadr asked: "Are you afraid of America? Say 'no, no to America! No, no to Israel!'"
The crowd roared back the same chant.
About 50,000 US troops remain in Iraq, but are required under a security accord between Baghdad and Washington to withdraw by the end of this year.
US forces in Iraq have mainly focused on training Iraqi forces, after combat operations in the country were officially declared over from September 1, 2010.
Despite the end of combat operations, American soldiers are allowed to return fire in self-defence and take part in joint operations if requested by their Iraqi counterparts, under the terms of the security pact.
"We listened to the speech, but heard nothing new," David Ranz, the spokesman for the US embassy in Baghdad, said of Sadr's speech.
He declined to comment further, and the US military in Iraq referred questions to the embassy.
While Sadr called for resistance against the US presence, he also stressed that Iraqis would not be harmed by his forces.
"Our hand will not touch any Iraqi... We only target the occupier, by all means of resistance. We are one people. We don't agree with some groups that carry out assassinations," Sadr said.
"For the unity of Iraq, say after me: 'Yes, yes for Iraq! Yes, yes, for peace! Yes, yes for harmony!'"
The crowd yelled back the cleric's words.
"If the conflicts took place among brothers, let us forget this page and turn it forever, and live united in peace and security," Sadr said in an apparent reference to sectarian violence in Iraq.
"We have to put an end to the suffering of the Iraqi people, by our unity," he said.
Sadr also said Iraq's new government, which was approved by parliament on December 21 and includes six ministers from his bloc, should be given a chance to perform, but must ensure that US forces withdraw.
"The government is new, so we should give it a chance to prove it is at the service of the people," he said.
But it also "must work to remove the occupier by any suitable means," Sadr added.
"We heard a promise from the government that it will remove the occupier from the country, and we are waiting for this promise" to be fulfilled.
The fiery, controversial Sadr gained widespread popularity among Shiites in the months after the 2003 US-led invasion, and his Mahdi Army militia later battled American and Iraqi government forces in several bloody confrontations.
Sadr was identified by the Pentagon in 2006 as the biggest threat to stability in Iraq.
His militia became the most active and feared armed Shiite group, and was blamed by Washington for death-squad killings of thousands of Sunnis.
But in August 2008, Sadr suspended the activities of the Mahdi Army, which once numbered in the tens of thousands, after major US and Iraqi assaults on its strongholds in Baghdad and southern Iraq in the spring.
Following the ceasefire, US military commanders said his action had been instrumental in helping to bring about a significant decrease in the levels of violence across Iraq.
Despite only rare appearances in public, the cleric is idolised by millions of Shiites, especially in Najaf where he has his headquarters and in the impoverished Baghdad neighbourhood of Sadr City, which is named after his father, a revered cleric who was killed by gunmen in 1999.