Remember Moqtada al-Sadr? Just three years ago, the firebrand cleric and his feared Mahdi Army militia were the scourge of the coalition in Iraq, spearheading the Shia opposition to the United States and its allies in the former Ba'athist state. Since then, the man who ranks as one of Iraq's most notorious native sons has largely disappeared from view, preferring flight rather than fight in the face of an increasingly assertive central government in Baghdad. Now, however, there are signs that Sadr is poised on the brink of a major political comeback – one that could significantly reconfigure Iraqi politics.
Sadr's political makeover can be traced to March 2008, when the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki launched a military offensive designed to consolidate control over the country's then restive Shia south. In the port city of Basra, Maliki's forces confronted – and then decisively defeated – Sadr's Mahdi Army: a 40,000-strong guerrilla force at the time. From there, Maliki turned his attention to the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, dispatching a contingent of some 10,000 troops to successfully pacify the city's notorious Sadr City slum.
The campaign left Sadr's militia decimated. By the middle of 2008, more than 2,000 members of the Mahdi Army were estimated to have been killed and the organisation was in the throes of a serious confidence crisis. In mid-June 2008, Sadr issued a communiqué announcing that his radical group was in effect going out of the insurgent business.
While 'resistance' to the coalition will continue to be waged by a small cadre of dedicated fighters, Sadr said, most of the Mahdi Army will commit itself to laying down its arms in favour of a general "struggle against Western secular ideology". Sadr himself, meanwhile, went back to school. Even before Maliki's crackdown, coalition authorities had taken note of Sadr's dalliance with religious learning, tracking his travels from Tehran (where he had fled from Iraq in May 2007) to Iran's holy city of Qom for religious training.
However, shortly after disbanding the Mahdi Army Sadr is said to have started his theological studies in earnest, enrolling in a seminary for serious theological instruction. The move was deeply pragmatic. It allowed the 30-something Sadr – until then a theological lightweight – to burnish his religious credentials, all the while reassuring his political allies in Tehran that he had not gone wobbly in the wake of Maliki's offensive. Additionally, it put Sadr, with his massive domestic following, into contention as a viable successor to Ali al-Sistani, the ageing Grand Ayatollah who serves as Iraq's most senior Shia religious authority.
In early 2009, however, the radical cleric re-emerged on the regional scene with a vengeance. In April, Sadr visited Turkey for meetings with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul. The warm reception he received was a not-so-subtle nod of approval from Ankara for hiswill to power.
Subsequently, Sadr travelled to Syria, with very similar results. These diplomatic niceties, coupled with the long-time support proffered to him by Tehran, suggest Sadr is seen as a serious political player by most of Iraq's regional neighbours.
Simultaneously, Sadr has reasserted himself as a populist politician. He and his loyalists have toed a nationalist line, urging the ouster of both the US and foreign companies from Iraq and outlining a detailed national platform aimed at securing the election of sympathetic politicians.
He has even tried his hand at foreign policy, attempting to mediate the unfolding conflict between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Houthi rebels in neighbouring Yemen. Sadr, in other words, has arrived.
Now comes the next test. Iraq's nationalelections, originally scheduled for January 2010, are in flux following the recent, controversial veto of a new election law by Vice-President Tariq al-Hashemi. However, when they do take place Sadr is bound to be a major player, by dint of his prominent role in the powerful new alliance of Shiite religious parties, known as the Iraqi National Alliance, which has coalesced ahead of the poll.
Exactly what role Sadr will play in the resulting political constellation remains to be seen. What is already clear, however, is that Sadr – part political upstart, part aspiring ayatollah – is more dangerous, and more relevant, than ever.