Iraqi Shiite Cleric Reportedly Ends A Sojourn In Iran

Iraqi Shiite Cleric Reportedly Ends A Sojourn In Iran
May 25th, 2007  
Team Infidel

Topic: Iraqi Shiite Cleric Reportedly Ends A Sojourn In Iran

Iraqi Shiite Cleric Reportedly Ends A Sojourn In Iran
New York Times
May 25, 2007
Pg. 1
By Michael R. Gordon
WASHINGTON, May 24 — The powerful Iraqi cleric Moktada al-Sadr has quietly returned to southern Iraq after a four-month sojourn in Iran, according to American intelligence reports.
The cleric left for Iran after the Bush administration announced its new security push in January, and his militia immediately went underground, in an apparent effort to outwait the Americans and avoid a head-on clash. Now, the development has the potential to profoundly influence politics and the security situation in Iraq, though American officials acknowledge that the political motivations for Mr. Sadr’s return and even the duration of his stay in Iraq remain unclear.
The prevailing view among American officials familiar with the intelligence reports is that Mr. Sadr’s aim at a minimum is to raise his political profile in Iraq and possibly strengthen his position in anticipation that provincial elections may be held next year. There have also been reports that his militia has been splintering during his absence, and he may also be trying to reinforce his influence over his supporters.
Some Americans also suggest that he may be trying to take advantage of the absence of one of his main Shiite rivals, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who has come to the United States for medical treatment. Mr. Hakim’s organization, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, has been vying for influence among Shiites with Mr. Sadr’s organization.
The broader question is whether Mr. Sadr plans to step up his oratory against the American-led coalition and try to mobilize pressure for an American withdrawal or seek a new political accommodation.
“He has a great deal of administrative and management work to do,” said Toby Dodge, a Middle East expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. “He has to reassert control over an increasingly wayward military organization.”
Mr. Dodge, who recently spent a month in Iraq, added, “Clearly, he needs to make his mind up whether his military organization is a tool of rampant sectarianism or a tool of national reconciliation.”
According to American officials familiar with intelligence reports, Mr. Sadr slipped into Iraq almost a week ago and was recently at Kufa, his home base near Najaf, in southern Iraq. There has been some speculation that Mr. Sadr might deliver a sermon on Friday, but American officials cannot say for sure. And while rumors of his return have been circulating in Baghdad, he has not yet made appearances or released any statements to confirm it.
Mr. Sadr, 33, has had an antagonistic relationship with the United States. Much of his popularity stems from his vehemently anti-American speeches immediately after the invasion in 2003; his militia waged two major uprisings against American troops in 2004.
In April, six ministers from Mr. Sadr’s movement left the Maliki government, protesting the Iraqi government’s refusal to set a schedule for the withdrawal of American forces. But a substantial bloc of Sadr supporters remain in the Iraqi Parliament. Last month, Mr. Sadr issued a statement, read by a cousin in Parliament, that praised Iraqis who were resisting the American occupation as “honorable Iraqis” and denounced President Bush as “the greatest evil.”
Despite his efforts to present himself as an Iraqi nationalist, there have been reports that Mr. Sadr’s militia has begun to fracture while he has been away and that he was losing influence with some of his more militant followers.
“There clearly are divisions in the Sadrist movement, probably accentuated by Sadr’s continuing absence from Iraq,” Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said in March.
Recently, Mr. Sadr has been taking a different tack. His supporters have met with Sunni Arab tribal leaders from Anbar Province who have been feuding with the insurgent group Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. The meetings were billed as an effort to forge a nationalist movement to overcome sectarian tensions, and the message appeared calculated to appeal to war-weary Iraqis. Some political analysts saw it as an attempt to expand his political bloc, and his return may also be an effort to advance this agenda.
American officials presume that Mr. Sadr, in returning to Iraq, has been assured by the Maliki government that he will not be detained. The United States appears to be taking a wait-and-see attitude, hoping that he will be more flexible in practice than his fiery speeches would suggest. While some American officials expect him to rally support for an American departure from Iraq, others say they hope he may seek some sort of accommodation.
Still, not even American officials privy to classified intelligence on Mr. Sadr’s reported return pretend to be certain what he has in mind. “There is a range of speculation on what it might mean,” one Defense Department official said. “Some say he will reassert himself. Some are not so sure of that. I don’t believe the intelligence community has come to a firm assessment on the meaning of his return to Iraq.”
One matter of speculation concerns how long Mr. Sadr intends to remain in Iraq. One theory is that he may make an appearance to impress his supporters, condemn the American occupation in a Friday sermon and then head back to Iran.
But another view is that Mr. Sadr will be watching the Americans as closely as they are monitoring him. This theory holds that he will continue to stay in southern Iraq and nurture his movement as long as he concludes that there is little chance that the American forces will move against him.

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