ISTANBUL, (AP) – An Iraqi cleric who led bloody rebellions against U.S. troops but stayed out of public view in the last two years has made an unusually visible appearance in Turkey, which is raising its own profile as a mediator in the region.
Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr met about 70 fellow Iraqi Shiites in Istanbul, Turkey’s biggest city, on Saturday in what representatives described as a discussion of ways to contribute to Iraq’s future. General elections are expected toward the end of this year, and Iraq’s 275-member parliament has about 30 al-Sadr loyalists.
Although al-Sadr shunned the media at Saturday’s event at a hotel, his participation as well as a photograph of him seated with Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a meeting a day earlier in Ankara were a departure from his customary reclusiveness.
Al-Sadr has made announcements on his Web site and issued statements for Friday prayers usually relayed via aides. But he was last seen in the media when he gave a television interview with Al-Jazeera on March 29, 2008. The last time he appeared in person in public was May 25, 2007, when he delivered a sermon in the Iraqi Shiite holy city of Kufa.
“We have put down our arms. Arms will not be raised, especially against the Iraqi soldiers,” Sheik Salah al-Obeidi, a spokesman for al-Sadr, said in Istanbul.
“However the resistance will continue,” he said. “There is economic, political and cultural resistance against the outside forces who are invading our land.”
After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, al-Sadr’s Shiite militia fought U.S. troops intermittently until a cease-fire last May. Despite his wide appeal to segments of Iraq’s Shiite poor, al-Sadr was viewed as troublesome by the Shiite-led government and hundreds of his supporters were arrested on suspicion of involvement in Iran-linked militant cells.
Al-Sadr said last year that his withdrawal from public view was motivated in part by his desire to focus on his studies to become a mujtahid, or a religious authority. On Saturday, al-Obeidi said al-Sadr’s whereabouts was kept secret, possibly reflecting concern for the cleric’s safety.
“Turkey is a good, old friend,” he said. “Trusting that, we have no hesitations to travel in Turkey.”
Al-Sadr is widely thought to be based in Iran’s holy city of Qom.
Turkey, which has an Islamic-oriented government and a secular constitution, has held talks with a variety of groups in Iraq in an effort to help establish stability there. Last year, it also hosted indirect talks between Israel and Syria, and President Barack Obama seeks its help in stabilizing Afghanistan.