2004 Comin’ Right Back At Ya

John Hudson at The Atlantic with the round-up. Hudson:

Moqtada al-Sadr is back. The radical Shi’ite cleric and head of Iraq’s most feared militia group has returned to Iraq after a 4-year self-imposed exile in Iran. His homecoming is being welcomed by many Iraqi Shi’ites, who see him as a stabilizing force in the country. His strong anti-American views, however, and history of fomenting sectarian violence have some in Washington on edge.

Tony Karon at Time:

Anyone remember what Jay Garner, the first U.S. viceroy in Baghdad in 2003, answered when asked how long American troops would be in Iraq? “Look back on the Philippines around the turn of the 20th century,” he told an interviewer. “They were a coaling station for the navy, and that allowed us to keep a great presence in the Pacific. That’s what Iraq is for the next few decades: our coaling station that gives us great presence in the Middle East.” Instead, as radical anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr made a triumphant return this week from self-imposed exile in Iran to assume a central role in the newly elected government, it is looking increasingly likely that the U.S. military presence in Iraq will be terminated by the end of this year.

David Kenner at Foreign Policy:

Sadr arrived in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, in southern Iraq. He visited the Shrine of Imam Ali and his father’s grave before returning to his family’s home. A spokesman for Sadr’s office in Najaf confirmed that he had returned to Iraq permanently.

Sadr’s movement won 40 seats in last year’s parliamentary elections, reestablishing it as a powerful force in Iraqi politics. Its decision to support Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a longtime nemesis of the movement, for a second term was instrumental in helping Maliki win the premiership. However, the Sadrists received numerous government posts in return for their support – and also, apparently, government assurances that Sadr could safely return to Iraq.

Some analysts also suggested that his return could be motivated by a desire to retain his preeminence over the movement’s leaders in Iraq, who have overseen the party’s impressive gains in recent years. “His party is becoming stronger and bigger, and the need for him to preside over it has grown, especially since there is fear that new leaders within the party could surpass him,” wrote Hazem al-Amin in the Arabic daily al-Hayat.

Paul Pillar at The National Interest:

Sadr’s move and the deal-making among Shia factions that is related to it underscore the sharpness of the sectarian divide in Iraq, notwithstanding earlier encouraging signs of cross-sect political activity. The chief manifestation of such activity, Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiya coalition, was outmaneuvered by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Maliki has cut his most important deals with other Shiites, and especially with the Sadrists. What passes for democracy in Iraq doesn’t go much beyond a simple concept of majority rule. Shiites are in the majority, and they are ruling. Having made a bargain with Maliki, notwithstanding earlier bloody confrontation between the two, Moqtada al-Sadr is a major part of that system.

Sadr’s return also underscores how far away in other respects Iraq still is from anything a westerner would recognize as a stable democracy. Given the responsibility of the Sadrists for much of the sectarian bloodshed of Iraq’s very recent past, the fact that their leader is back in place as an accepted political player in Iraq rather than being consigned to ignominy and exile is itself a major statement in that regard. Iraq is still a violent place, in the sense not only of daily incidents but also of how close beneath the surface of political life is the possibility and the inclination to resort to bigger bloodshed.

Juan Cole:

Sadr is a force for intolerance in Iraqi society, and it remains to be seen if he has actually abandoned his predilection for use of coercive force. His followers have attempted to regiment women, close down video stores, close down cinemas, and prevent public performance of music. They have also targeted Sunnis and secular Shiites, neither of which will likely welcome his return to Iraq.

On the one hand, Sadr’s return and his bloc’s participation in the Iraqi government is a sign of increased stability and might bode well for al-Maliki’s second term. The majority Shiites, including the Sadrists, have for the moment joined together and rallied behind the new prime minister. On the other, if Sadr goes back to promoting intolerance, he could be a force for disorder in a country and a political climate that already has enough of those.

Firas Al-Atraqchi at Huffington Post:

Unfortunately, there are some who have inflated Muqtada’s status as a revolutionary and his street battles with US forces as uprisings. They were never uprisings but merely a show of force by a man using the established clerical reputation of his family to gain a foothold among some of Iraq’s Shia, position himself as a resistance leader and earn dividends both in Iran and among Iraq’s disenfranchised.

His militia is comprised not of revolutionary nationalists but is a ragtag force of high school drop-outs, brigands, and common criminals; it is no threat to a regular army and was routed even by the then poorly-trained Iraqi army. However, the police, security and armed forces have been infiltrated by thousands of Sadrists in the past five years.

American strategists can claim victory in replacing a secular dictator with a theocratic one. In the meantime, the trap has been sprung and all Iraqis are living the nightmare.

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