Moqtada Al-Sadr returned to Iraq this past week with all the fanfare of a presidential visit. People flocked to to see him, if only just to catch a glimpse of the man during Friday prayers. Anthony Shadid of the New York Times described the scene:
“I’m expecting him,” said Abu Mustafa Mohammed… “I didn’t hear anything,” he added, “it’s only my expectation.
Well, my hope, at least.”
Another worshiper, Ahlam Nouri shouted, “He’s on his way! He’s on his way!” Ms. Nouri, 48, pulled her black veil toward her face in a gesture of decorum. “Our hearts tell us so…”
…Fifty-six minutes later, the sermon ended, and Mr. Sadr had yet to appear.The silence of the prayers broke to the bass drums of lamentations blaring from sidewalk speakers. The winter breeze picked up, and worshipers dusted off their pants and fumbled for their shoes. Ms. Nouri passed them, shaking her head in disappointment. “Why didn’t he come?” she asked. “Why couldn’t we just have a glimpse of his eyes?”
She shrugged before joining the legions of others walking into sun-soaked streets, bound for distant towns of an undecided country, where they awaited their reckoning.
When Sadr actually appeared publicly the next day, for his first major speech in Iraq since his exile, the man still carried some of the brash demeanor with which he defiantly opposed U.S. troops only years before. He vehemently denounced the American occupation, as is his trademark, stating that
“We are still resisters, and we are still resisting the occupier militarily and culturally and by all the means of resistance. Repeat after me: No, no for the occupier. Let’s have all the world hear that Iraqi people reject the occupier.”
Yet this brashness was somewhat tempered, no doubt owing to his new found role as political figure. Sadr has now assumed the mantle of politician, albeit one immersed in the religious overtones of the Shi’ism that he and his followers espouse. His speech reflected this. He urged his supporters to give the Iraqi government time to work on behalf of its people, to come together as a nation
“if any conflict happened between the brothers, let’s forget this page and turn it over forever and let’s live united,” he said. “We have had enough fighting.
In this, Sadr also sought to distance himself from the brutal reign that much of his Mahdi Army held over Baghdad and other parts of Iraq during the sectarian conflict that resulted in the cleansing of untold numbers of Iraqis. Yet because his movement was able to be used to shore up a victory for current Prime Minister Nouri Al -Maliki, these issues seem to have been conveniently swept under the rug for the time being in favor of the current Iraqi political process. Sadr no longer has to worry about warrants targeting his arrest, as he did just few years ago, in what many felt was the real reason that he left for Iran.
Sadr has keenly placed himself in the political spotlight, and he is arguably the most popular political figure in Iraq. Maliki or Allawi would likely be hard pressed to see a turnout as large as what Sadr saw on Saturday. Women were seen openly weeping as he sermonized, a testament to his popularity and the religiosity inherent in his movement, which is primarily the Shia underclass and a large component of Iraq’s population. With Sadr, they feel a sense of power that they never experienced under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.
What many Iraqis witnessed on Saturday, was a politician tying up the loose ends of his movement, and positioning himself as a key player in Iraq’s political process. What type of player he wants to be remains to be seen. Even as he wished peace to all the peoples of Iraq, as he did in his speech, some fear that the political Islam he espouses will lead to more bloodshed and less equality among Iraqis.
More on Sadr and his return later in the week.