NAJAF, Iraq, (AP) – Hundreds of supporters on Thursday thronged the home of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who has returned to Iraq after nearly four years in self-imposed exile in Iran.
The firebrand populist whose militiamen battled American and Iraqi forces left Iraq in 2007 seen more as a powerful but unpredictable leader of a street-fighting organization but returned Wednesday as a legitimate political figure heading an organized movement that is a key partner in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s new government.
A swarm of al-Sadr’s bodyguards — dressed in black clothes and flak jackets and toting automatic rifles — deployed around his house in the al-Hanana neighborhood in central Najaf where followers were waiting to meet him.
One of the youngest among those gathered outside al-Sadr’s house was nine-year-old Mohammed Sadiq, who was accompanied by his uncle. “I’d like to kiss his hands and tell him: I miss you and don’t leave us again,” said Sadiq.
Supporters hung banners on nearby buildings, one of which read: “Yes, Yes to our leader. Here we are at your service our Master Muqtada.” Another banner said: “We renew our allegiance to our leader Muqtada al-Sadr.”
The cleric was believed to be meeting with Iraq’s most revered Shiite figure, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, on Thursday but the meeting could not be confirmed.
Al-Sadr has legions of followers among Iraq’s downtrodden Shiite masses who see him as a champion of their rights against both the Sunnis who dominated Iraq under Saddam Hussein and other Shiite political parties such as al-Maliki’s Dawa party, which represents more of the Shiite middle class.
Al-Sadr has not been seen publicly in Iraq since 2007. He left to study Islam in Qom, Iran, the seat of Shiite education. The sojourn was a way for the 37-year-old cleric to burnish his theological credentials at a time when he was sometimes criticized within Shiite religious circles for his relative religious inexperience. But he also faced an arrest warrant for his alleged role in assassinating a rival Shiite cleric.
The arrest warrant appeared to be in effect as recently as last March but the chances it would be enforced seem almost nonexistent considering the alliance between al-Maliki and al-Sadr. The public nature of al-Sadr’s return — his first appearance in Iraq since leaving for Iran — suggested he had little to fear.
While al-Sadr’s homecoming was a cause for joy among his supporters, his return caused trepidation among many Iraqis, particularly Sunnis who remember vividly the sectarian killings carried out by his militia, the Mahdi Army, and believe he is a tool of Iran.