NAJAF, Iraq, (Reuters) – Powerful Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who has not been seen in public for months, issued an unusual statement on Friday explaining his absence to his followers and admitting splits in his movement.
“I swear that I live with you and among you. I am a part of you. I will not change this unless death separates us,” he said in a two-page statement bearing his personal stamp.
The statement was issued two weeks after Sadr extended a ceasefire by his Mehdi Army for another six months. He first called on the militia, blamed by the U.S. military and Sunni Arabs for fuelling sectarian violence, to halt its activities in August so that he could reorganise it.
While professing their loyalty to the young cleric, many members of the Mehdi Army have openly questioned his decision to renew the ceasefire, fearing that U.S. forces will exploit it to carry out further arrests of Sadr’s followers.
Sadr, who commands a large following among young and poor Iraqi Shi’ites and has one of the largest bloc of legislators in parliament, has not been seen in public since attending a religious ceremony in the holy city of Kufa on May 25, 2007. He did not indicate when he might return to public view.
In December, a senior aide to Sadr, Salah al-Ubaidi, said the young cleric was taking advanced Islamic studies in a bid to earn credentials that would allow him to issue decrees.
Sadr’s statement issued on Friday acknowledged that his followers were wondering where he was and his absence “could be a reason for depressing them”.
Sadr, who the U.S. military believes is in Iran, said he had chosen to isolate himself to concentrate on his studies and to distance himself from groups that had splintered from his movement and developed their own political agendas. “Many whom we believed were good followers are not listening to or obeying the instructions of their religious leaders and they are involved in political conflicts,” he said. “Many followers have split from me for many reasons, some of them want to be independent. This does not mean there are not loyal followers,” he added.
The U.S. military has in the past questioned how much influence Sadr exerts over his movement. Most recently, it has praised Sadr’s call for the ceasefire and said it is targeting rogue Mehdi Army units that have ignored it.
The young cleric has sought to portray himself as a nationalist leader and a possible alternative to the Shi’ite Islamist parties now in government. He has repeatedly called on the government to set a timetable for a U.S. troop withdrawal. “The continued presence of the occupiers … pushed me to take this isolation. It is a way to express my protest at what is going on,” he said.