As Iraq Ignites, Cleric Seeks Gains

January 6, 2012

By SAM DAGHER and ALI A. NABHAN, The Wall Street Journal

BAGHDAD—With the end of the U.S. military’s mission in Iraq last month, one of its fiercest longtime opponents is repositioning himself as a national leader.

Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who waged a bloody insurgency against Americans here over a period of more than eight years, now presides over one of the country’s most organized and influential political groups—a cause of significant concern for the Americans.

This week, amid a power struggle that has threatened to bring down the Iraqi government, Mr. Sadr has sought to rise above the fray by calling for a referendum on his own plan to prevent renewed sectarian warfare. On Thursday, he joined talks in Iran with Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who was on a mission to ease Sunni-Shiite tensions in the Middle East.

Also on Thursday, a series of bombings killed at least 69 people in Shiite areas of Iraq—attacks that appeared specifically aimed at goading Mr. Sadr’s followers back into a war that would make Iraq ungovernable.

The Sadrist movement’s transition from militancy to politics remains ambiguous, and far from complete. Mr. Sadr hasn’t backed off his anti-U.S. rhetoric, and his group still commands a militia, though he has for several years distanced himself from his days as commander of a ragtag army of black-clad militiamen.

The movement, however, is now part of Iraq’s leadership, with its representation in Parliament an integral part of the current government. The movement runs schools, cultural and research centers and is expanding media outlets and opening more offices abroad. It has a political liaison office in London.

It also has support from Iran—drawing comparisons by anxious U.S. officials to Hezbollah, the Iran-backed militant organization that is the most powerful political group in Lebanon.

“I am very concerned,” said U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey in an interview last month. “Just because a movement has street credibility and is well organized does not mean it’s a part of the decent and peaceful future of a country.”

Mr. Sadr’s influence, including threats to resort to violence, were largely responsible for blocking an Iraqi deal with the Obama administration for U.S. soldiers to remain beyond the end of 2011, according to several senior Iraqi officials with knowledge of the talks.

Mr. Jeffrey and other U.S. officials say Iran’s Shiite-led regime is backing Mr. Sadr’s movement and other Shiite militias in an effort to bolster Iraqi institutions that operate parallel to the state, similar to Hezbollah.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has played down the perceived threat from Iran, though Tehran has recently boasted of its influence in Iraq.

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