Muqtada al Sadr, one of the most popular Shiite clerics and an unrelenting rival of the United States in Iraq, has returned to his home in the southern Iraqi city of Najaf after three years of self-imposed exile in Iran. The cleric's surprise homecoming is a victory lap after he played a role as kingmaker in ending months of political paralysis and securing a second term for the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al al Maliki.
Under pressure from Iran, Mr al Sadr finally agreed to Mr al Maliki's bid to remain in office. With Mr al Sadr's backing, the prime minister was able to reach a deal with other political factions, especially the Kurds. That allowed Mr al Maliki to secure a majority in the 325-seat Parliament, which was necessary to approve a new government.
Now, Mr al Sadr has returned home to play a central part in Iraqi politics and to oversee his movement's transition from a militia force to a powerful political group with 40 seats in Parliament. But his ascendance threatens to stoke sectarian tensions in Iraq: his followers were responsible for some of the worst atrocities against Sunnis during the country's recent civil war. Mr al Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army, unleashed death squads that assassinated Sunnis and drove them out of Shiite neighbourhoods.
It is not clear if Mr al Sadr has decided to return permanently to Iraq, or whether he intends to go back to Iran to resume his religious studies. In either case, his arrival on the Iraqi scene is carefully timed and intended to ensure that Mr al Maliki follows through on the promises he made to win the support of Mr al Sadr's parliamentary bloc.
Mr al Maliki is facing pressure from his political partners on several national security issues that could further polarise Iraq. The most important is whether Mr al Maliki would request that some US troops remain in Iraq beyond the end of the year, when they are obligated to depart under a 2008 security agreement. Days after he was nominated for a second term, Mr al Maliki said it would not be necessary to keep a small US force to continue training Iraqi troops and help maintain security.