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 following the country's national election in March and securing a second term for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Under pressure from Iran, Sadr finally agreed in early October to support Maliki's bid for a second term. With Sadr's support, Maliki was able to reach a deal with other political factions, especially the Kurds. That allowed Maliki to secure a majority in the 325-seat Parliament, which was necessary to approve a new government.
Now, 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 forty seats in parliament. But Sadr's 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. Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army, unleashed death squads that assassinated Sunnis and drove them out of Shiite neighborhoods.
Maliki is already facing pressure from his political partners on several national security decisions that could further polarize Iraq. The most important is whether Maliki would request that some American troops remain in Iraq beyond a withdrawal deadline of December 2011 set by the Obama administration. At his first news conference after he was nominated for a second term, Maliki indicated there was no need for a small U.S. force to continue training Iraqi troops and help maintain security. "I don't see a need for any other international forces to help Iraqis control the security situation," he said.
Sadr's supporters have vowed to withdraw from Maliki's government if there is any attempt to keep a U.S. military presence in Iraq beyond the end of this year. With such a fragile coalition keeping him in power, Maliki cannot afford to lose the support of Sadr's forty seats in parliament.
Sadr represents the triumph of a defiant brand of Shiism in Iraq. Because Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and other senior theologians shun direct political involvement, they create a power vacuum among Iraqi Shiites--one that Sadr is eager to fill. He wants to be both a respected cleric and a political broker.
Amid the euphoria that followed the ouster of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003, Shiite clergymen debated their role in politics. Sadr and his supporters argued that they must fill the void left by the Ba'athist system. They denounced the U.S. occupation and American plans to install an interim government made up mainly of exiled Iraqi politicians like Ayad Allawi and Ahmad Chalabi. Sadr's followers seized control of hospitals, schools, and mosques in parts of Baghdad, Najaf, and Karbala. Sadr drew tens of thousands to his rallies and Friday sermons. He created the Mahdi Army, which had several thousand fighters--most of them young, impoverished Shiites from Baghdad's slums and southern Iraq.
Sadr started out as a militia leader, with the populist appeal and credibility that comes from being heir to a family of martyrs. He then turned himself into one of Iraq's most effective and ruthless politicians. The elder clerics watched from the sidelines, confident that their rarefied religious authority would be more enduring than the young upstart's fleeting political power. But now Sadr is on his way to becoming an even more formidable power broker in Iraq.