Anti-American Cleric Returns To Iraq

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Muqtada al-Sadr offered a brief speech to followers Saturday, following his return to Iraq from Iran, where he had lived in a self-imposed exile. He told thousands of supporters U.S. troops need to be gone by 2012. The fiery cleric also said support for the current government could continue, provided it addresses basic needs.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

In Iraq, the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has returned after nearly four years in exile. Sadr's militia, the Mahdi army, waged fierce battles against U.S. troops early in the war, and is thought to have led Shiite death squads during the sectarian war in 2006 and 2007. Sadr left Iraq around that time to flee an arrest warrant for ordering the killing of a rival cleric, and to pursue religious studies in Iran.

Now that he's thrown his support behind the government of incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the warrant appears to have been canceled. NPR's Kelly McEvers watched Sadr's comeback speech Saturday in the holy city of Najaf, and sent this report.

KELLY MCEVERS: It was a dramatic moment when Sadr took the podium. Thousands of his supporters, most of them poor and disenfranchised Shiites, waited on the narrow street where Sadr was born. As he rose up before them with his black turban and black beard, the men beat their chests and heads in the traditional Shiite style, and wept.

(Soundbite of crowd crying)

MCEVERS: Sadr himself paused to wipe his eyes. He led the group in prayer, and then gave a quick speech.

(Soundbite of Muqtada Al-Sadr's speech)

MCEVERS: Sadr spoke not as the commander-in-chief of an anti-government, anti-American militia but as a politician. His bodyguards passed out Iraqi flags for supporters to wave. Instead of "Death to America," the chants were "No to America."

(Soundbite of Muqtada Al-Sadr's speech)

(Soundbite of crowd chanting in foreign language)

MCEVERS: Instead of calling on his constituents to take up arms, he said armed resistance to what he calls the American occupation should be reserved for just a few trained specialists. Most people, he said, should resist with their hearts.

(Soundbite of Muqtada Al-Sadr's speech)

MCEVERS: Sadr then turned his attention to the Iraqi government, whose forces his militia also battled in the past. If officials don't provide you with basic services, like clean water and reliable electricity, then we will oppose them, he said.

(Soundbite of Muqtada Al-Sadr's speech)

MCEVERS: But, he said, we will oppose them politically, within the system.

Sadr's change in tone might sound subtle to an American listener, but analysts here say it's an important shift. Many point to the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah. Both movements are considered to be clients of Iran; both have gained seats in parliament; and both have built their message on resistance to an enemy occupier.

In Lebanon, that occupier was Israel. But when Israeli troops pulled out of Lebanon in 2000, the group styled a new message of resistance. In his speech, Sadr said that resistance will go on forever.

(Soundbite of Muqtada Al-Sadr's speech)

MCEVERS: Afterward, Sadr supporters loaded into buses, and headed back to their villages around Iraq's Shiite south.

(Soundbite of horn honking)

MCEVERS: We asked them: If U.S. troops stick to their deadline and leave Iraq by the end of this year, what will there be to resist?

Mr. AHMED ALLAWI: (foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: We don't know, says Ahmed Allawi(ph). That's up to our leader.

Back here in the capital, many people seem willing to wait and see if Sadr really has changed. Some Sunni families aren't so sure. Ibrahim Ismail Ibrahim's(ph) three brothers were killed during the sectarian war; and his father was beaten, shot to death, and thrown in the trash. Ibrahim believes the killers belong to Sadr's Mahdi army.

Mr. IBRAHIM ISMAIL IBRAHIM: (foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: As many Iraqis say, when it's a matter of blood, you never forget.

(Soundbite of crowd singing in foreign language)

MCEVERS: Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Baghdad.

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