Welcome back, Sadr


Muqtada al Sadr.

Muqtada al Sadr, the Iranian-backed, pseudo-cleric derisively known as Mullah Atari and hailed in US media circles as “the most powerful man in Iraq,” has returned from his self-imposed three-year-plus-long exile in Iran.

Sadr left Iraq after the US and Iraqi security forces stepped up operations against his now-disbanded Mahdi Army in early 2007. Sadr claimed he went to Qom to further his religious studies, but in reality he feared being swept up in US and Iraqi operations.

Sadr’s Mahdi Army was crushed during an Iraqi-led offensive that began in Basrah in March 2008, and spread to Baghdad and much of the provinces between the two cities throughout the summer and fall. In Baghdad’s Sadr City alone, Mahdi Army commanders admitted to losing more than 1,000 fighters, with thousands more wounded.

During the crushing operations, Sadr claimed to have initiated a ceasefire. And after suffering a stinging defeat, he then claimed to have disbanded the Mahdi Army and puts its fighters to humanitarian efforts, save a few hundred fighters reserved to the Promised Day Brigades, which is assigned solely to attacking US forces.

Sadr returns to Iraq not as the conqueror of the Americans, but as the man who engineered a backdoor deal that put his enemy, Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, back into power (Maliki, as prime minister, directed operations against the Mahdi Army from 2007-2009). The Sadrist Trend has 39 seats in parliament; but not all of the Sadrists support Muqtada. And Sadr doesn’t have nearly the street cred he had at the height of his power, in the fall of 2006 when Mahdi Army death squads terrorized Baghdad and other Iraqi cities. Sadr has now been reduced to squabbling with the Asaib al Haq, or League of the Righteous, a violent Mahdi Army offshoot that disdains Sadr.

The Iraqi government still has an outstanding warrant for his arrest for his involvement in the assassination of Sayyid Abdul Majid al Khoei in April 2003 after the fall of Saddam Hussain’s government. There is little chance Sadr will be held to account for the murder of Khoei or his involvement in the murder of thousands of Iraqis at the hands of his Mahdi Army. An open question is whether Sadr will be satisfied with his reduced role, or if he will continue to threaten the security of the Iraqi state.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • jayc says:

    I might be wrong, but I believe this is the same man who proclaimed himself the “Mayor of Baghdad” after its fall during the American invasion.

  • Charu says:

    Bill, if the goal in Iraq is to weaken Sunni extremism that threatens us (e.g., AQ-in-Iraq) and to limit Iranian influence there, then Sadr could be a useful player. He represents Arab Shia legitimacy, which the Persian Ayatollahs fear. True he is a brutal thug and gangster, but he has demonstrated Iraqi-styled leadership skills and his ancestry is revered among the Arab Shiites, and there is deep historical tension between them and the Persians. Similarly, he is no friend to the Sunni extremists who seek to harm us globally. Yes, he isn’t our friend either, but his interests appear to be limited to Southern Iraq. Seems to me that our ill-considered involvement in Iraq has ended up strengthening Iran’s influence; which becomes a major threat to stability in the region. Sadr may end up being the least damaging of the limited options available to us to reverse Iran’s gains in Iraq.

  • madashell59 says:

    Anybody who thinks he is not back to create a disruption to the new Iraq government must be dreaming.
    He is a thug tried and true. He is looking for money and power once again and more than likely backed by Iran. He could also be a spy. He should be arrested or under house arrest where he can be watched.

  • Ranger says:

    Not sure how, since he’s an Iranian pawn.
    Which is one of the things that has helped bring his star down in Iraq.
    We shoulda whacked him so many times, but I see somebody else in Iraq getting him in time. Revenge and all, and a position of greatly reduced esteem for Mookie make him an eminently more “killable” target this go round.
    One can hope, at least.

  • Charu says:

    “he’s an Iranian pawn”
    @Ranger; who among the Iraqi Shia isn’t an Iranian pawn? Al Maliki is clearly an Iranian pawn, as is our old “friend” Chalabi. With Sadr, though, there is the potential for upsetting the Iranian cart. I believe that we underestimate the antagonisms between the Persian and Arab Shiites. The key holy sites lie in Iraq and the Persians do not have the full legitimacy of being the “chosen people” like the Arabs. The rival cleric that Sadr had assassinated, I think, was of Persian descent. All I am saying is that our actions in the past have generally strengthened the Iranian hold in Iraq, and we shouldn’t be too quick to discount Sadr’s ability to mount a populist rejection of Iranian hegemony.

  • ELM says:

    Sadar is the nephew of the founder of the Iranian Hezbola. Family ties, connect the dots. Do you really need to know anything else other than he went into the “holy” city of QOM where it is rummored that over 50 families of AQ are living openly and sheltered by Iranian security forces.
    The road to Peace in the Mid East runs right smack dad through the middle of Terror-Iran, er, ah Terran!

  • Ibn Siqilli says:

    Not every Iranian Twelver Shi’i is ethnically “Persian,” despite speaking the language. The Khu’i family is of Azeri origin.


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