U.S. Antagonist in Iraq Takes a Political Gamble

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NAJAF, Iraq -- When Moktada al-Sadr, the populist Shiite leader and America's most unyielding enemy here, returned to Iraq early last year after three years of self-imposed exile in Iran, he did so as a triumphant kingmaker whose actions proved decisive in ending months of electoral stalemate.

Now, with the United States military gone, he has emerged as something more prosaic: a mainstream political leader looking for new paths to secure the claims to power that his movement achieved through violent opposition to the American occupation.

The first thing he has done is come home once more. With none of the fanfare of his homecoming last year -- which was quickly followed by his return to Iran -- Mr. Sadr says he is back in Iraq to stay, at least for now. He says he has temporarily put aside his religious studies in Iran, widely considered his patron, to attend to a political crisis here over contests for power among Iraq's Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds that has brought the government to a standstill, and to position his movement for the next elections.

Notably, Mr. Sadr has joined Sunnis and Kurds in calling for the ouster of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, a fellow Shiite. He is also testing other cross-sectarian alliances by inviting Sunni and Christian candidates to run in provincial elections, scheduled for next year, under the Sadrist banner. Together, these moves could help position him as a nationalist and help him shed the baggage of the past, when his militias were linked to some of the worst sectarian violence.

Yet Mr. Sadr risks alienating his base of devout Shiites in the hardscrabble neighborhoods of Baghdad and rural areas of the south. Criticism can already be heard on the streets in Baghdad, and a poll conducted in April for the National Democratic Institute, which is financed by the American government, showed Mr. Sadr's popularity slipping and Mr. Maliki's rising.

At a shop that makes placards bearing Mr. Sadr's visage on the edge of Sadr City, the poor Baghdad neighborhood that bears the family name and is a political stronghold, Ismail Jabbar, who works there, has noticed a change in customers' sentiments toward Mr. Sadr. "People criticize him more than before," he said. "They are not accepting of what is happening."

Mr. Jabbar explained that Mr. Sadr's decision to align with Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite who leads the largely Sunni bloc called Iraqiya, in opposition to Mr. Maliki had alienated some who remember when Mr. Allawi was interim prime minister in 2004 and 2005 and targeted the Mahdi Army, Mr. Sadr's now-disbanded militia.

"Part of politics is that you make your enemy your friend, and people don't understand that," he said.

Still, the Sadrists, more so than any other party, retain a link to the street and the ability to mobilize supporters. Last month in Baghdad, several hundred Sadrists protested against Mr. Maliki, and in loud chants called the prime minister a liar and compared him to Saddam Hussein.

As part of a new effort to extend his reach to different segments of Iraqi society, Mr. Sadr recently summoned journalists to his family home in this holy city. Days before, he held a similar event with a group of Iraqi artists and actors.

Sitting in a wide-backed armchair in front of a table overflowing with plastic flowers and adorned with a photograph of his father, a revered ayatollah whose legacy he inherited, Mr. Sadr stroked the egos in the room by saying: "The media is the fourth power. It is very important."

At the end, an Iraqi journalist asked: Would Mr. Sadr go back to Qum, Iran's holy city of Shiite scholarship, where he lived and studied for years?

"After this crisis, if it were the last crisis, I would," he said. "But I know there will be more crises in another time."

Mr. Sadr's movements were once closely watched and made instant headlines here, but his apparent decision to make Iraq his permanent home was little remarked upon in the local news media. It is perhaps evidence of the maturing of a movement that is at once political, martial and religious, and that owes as its inspiration Lebanon's Hezbollah, another Shiite movement that has melded faith, social works and a military wing to achieve power. As well, the grim political reality that has set in here has seemingly made it impossible for grand gestures to resonate.

"He is Iraqi, so it is normal for him to be in Iraq," said Hussein Khadim, a Sadrist and member of Parliament.

Mr. Sadr's opposition to the prime minister also puts distance, at least symbolically, between the movement and Iran, which has backed Mr. Maliki.

The degree to which Iran controls Mr. Sadr's decisions is widely discussed here and in Western policy circles, and many say they believe he is a pawn for the Iranian leadership. But Mr. Sadr is also considered a wild card in Iraqi politics, a man given to unpredictability. And his decision to keep pushing for Mr. Maliki's ouster even after Iranian officials reportedly asked him to back off suggests that his relationship to Iran is more complex than many analysts think.

"If I give my opinion, no one can change my mind, not Iran or anyone else," Mr. Sadr said.

Mr. Sadr has also rejected a fatwa by one of his spiritual mentors, Ayatollah Kazem al-Haeri of Iran, that declared that Iraq's government should not be led by a secular figure. The fatwa appeared to be a response to the push for the ouster of Mr. Maliki, a member of the Islamist Dawa Party.

"The Iraqi Constitution, the first article in it, says that any decision should not go against Islam," Mr. Sadr said. "So even if a secular comes to power, he must not go against the Constitution."

The sense of triumph that attended the Sadrists' rise to power and Mr. Sadr's return last year has given way to the hard realities of governing Iraq, whose divisions and traumas have allowed only minimal political and social progress.

"For 25 years, I have been a barber in Sadr City, and nothing has changed in my life," Ali Suker said as he gave a customer a trim in his shop.

"After the occupation until now, it's the same," he said. "Electricity is even getting worse."

Duraid Adnan contributed reporting from Najaf, and Yasir Ghazi from Baghdad.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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