The powerful Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr ended his self-imposed exile in Iran and returned to his stronghold hometown of Najaf in central Iraq this week. Al-Sadr fled Iraq in 2008 after the government issued an arrest warrant for him. His return was seen as evidence that his faction struck had struck a deal to have the warrant cancelled in exchange for al-Sadr’s movement joining the new government led by Nouri al-Maliki.
As-Sadr’s support has been deemed crucial for any Iraqi government to survive, but his return brings concerns about increasing Iranian influence into Iraq. Al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army battled US troops until they were crushed in 2008. He remains enormously popular among Iraq’s Shi’ites, who make up about 40% of the population. It remains to be seen what role al-Sadr will play in the new government. The secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Saeed Jalili hailed the formation of the national unity government in Iraq after months of deadlock as a victory. (The Media Line, Jan. 6; Press TV, Jan. 5)