Moqtada al-Sadr returns to Iraq after exile


After nearly four years in exile in Iran, radical anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has returned to Iraq.

Crowds gathered as the cleric visited his family home in the southern Iraqi city of Najaf and then the Holy Shrine of Imam Ali. His return led television news reports across the country.

A spokesman for the cleric said Sadr would "address the country" Wednesday night or Thursday morning.

Sadr, in his thirties, commanded one of Iraq's most formidable militias, the Mehdi Army, which contributed to much of the violence and instability in the country after the fall of Saddam Hussein, and dominated in the brutal sectarian war of 2006-2007.

His loyalists are among the most potent opponents of the American military presence in the country.

The Shiite cleric led two uprisings against U.S. forces in 2004, and has been in Iran since early 2007, the height of the U.S. military's surge. The U.S. occupation authority had issued an arrest warrant for him for his alleged role in the murder of a rival cleric.

He has reportedly been studying in the Iranian city of Qom to become an ayatollah, the title given to high-ranking Shiite Muslim religious scholars.

Despite only rare public appearances, Sadr is idolized by millions of Shiites, especially the young, poor and dispossessed in the impoverished Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City. His father, the highly respected Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, was murdered in 1999 for defying Saddam.

He had vowed not to return to Iraq until all U.S. forces had left the country. Around 45,000 troops remain, but only a small number are combat troops and all are now under the ultimate direction of the Iraqi government.

His return comes just two weeks after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, also a Shiite, used support from a bloc of Sadr loyalists to cobbled together a unity government and begin a second term.

The Sadrist bloc won 39 seats in Iraq's new parliament and was given eight ministries — including housing and construction, labor and social affairs, water resources, and tourism and archeology — by Maliki.

Even while in exile, the cleric showed he could pull powerful political strings.

After throwing his weight behind Maliki in 2006, ensuring he became prime minister, Sadr then ordered his followers to pull out of the premier's cabinet a year later, almost bringing down the government.