NAJAF, Iraq (Reuters) - The return of anti-U.S. Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr from exile elicited a mixture of euphoria and cautious hope among Iraqis on Thursday, with many looking to him to help stabilise the war-torn country.
Hundreds of Sadr’s followers in the holy Shi’ite city of Najaf celebrated his homecoming from Iran, and the possible transformation into a mainstream politician of a man once associated with black-clad death squads that roamed Iraq.
Sadr, who led two uprisings against U.S. forces after the 2003 invasion, cemented his movement’s position in Iraq’s new coalition government after playing a kingmaker role in putting Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki back in power for a second term.
His return was possible also because of declining U.S. clout ahead of a full military withdrawal by the end of this year.
Sadr’s support of a Maliki return to power is thought to have been brokered at least in part by Iran. Sadr’s years in exile under Iranian patronage may have increased Iranian influence on him. But diplomats say that ultimately he is an Iraqi nationalist, and an unpredictable and enigmatic leader unlikely to pay much heed to the wishes of external players.
His followers were seen to be behind much of the sectarian violence at the height of fighting in 2006-07 between majority Shi’ites and the once dominant Sunnis, and are still regarded with suspicion by many, particularly Washington.
In Baghdad’s sprawling Shi’ite slum of Sadr City, a Sadr stronghold, many rejoiced.
“We Iraqis are delighted at the return of Sayyed and leader Moqtada al-Sadr, above all because he is now part of the political process,” said Sadr City resident Salih al-Daraji, giving Sadr the title accorded in the Islamic world to descendants of the Prophet Mohammed.
“The Sayyed does not differentiate between Sunnis and Shi’ites or Christians; all Iraqis are equals.”