Muqtada al Sadr, the Shiite cleric who led uprisings against the US military before becoming a government king-maker, returned to Iraq yesterday after years of self-imposed exile in Iran.

He arrived in Najaf yesterday afternoon, arriving at the city's recently opened airport, according to officials in the Sadrist political bloc, the powerful grassroots movement the cleric leads.

Despite playing a major role in the formation of the current Iraqi government, Mr al Sadr has not been seen in the country since 2007. Since then he has been living in Iran, and studying in Qom, a major centre of learning for Shiite Muslims.

His arrival coincided with a visit to Baghdad by Iran's acting foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, although the two men had separate itineraries.

"I wouldn't read too much into them arriving on the same day. I don't see a direct link," said Ala Allawi, an independent Iraqi political analyst. Instead, he viewed the cleric's return as a signal that the Sadrists would step up their work.

"Muqtada has made real political achievements and he wants to make sure his house and party are strong," Mr Allawi said. "We will see even more activity from them now, in all fields, political, economic and cultural."

It remains unclear if Mr al Sadr's appearance will be a fleeting stopover or marks a more permanent return to Iraqi life.

He paid a visit to his family home in Najaf yesterday, where hundreds of supporters gathered to welcome him. He was also due to visit the grave of his father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq al Sadr, who was killed in 1999 having publicly defied the rule of Saddam Hussein.

Mr al Sadr remains a highly divisive figure in Iraq. His critics say he has fallen under the influence of Iran, and point to the role his Mahdi Army militia played in the sectarian bloodletting of 2005 to 2007, when it was heavily implicated in death squads that targeted Sunnis.

There are signs that Mr al Sadr has paid a price for his long years away from Iraq, with some of his followers now doubting his loyalty to the country.

"Muqtada used to be an Iraqi nationalist but now he is too close to Iran," said a disgruntled former senior member of the Mahdi Army in Baghdad. "He has Iranian ideology, Iranian advisers and Iranian security guards."

But his supporters, largely drawn from Iraq's impoverished Shiite residents, see him as a nationalist hero and man of God, who bravely stood up to US military occupation and struggled for the common man's interests against corrupt Baghdad politicians.

The Mahdi Army fought a series of battles against US troops following the 2003 invasion. The militia was eventually disbanded, but only after Iraqi forces killed and arrested hundreds of its fighters in 2008, restoring government control to the streets of Basra and Sadr City, the Baghdad slum where the movement draws much of its backing.

Some had written off the Sadrists at that point, believing it had been terminally weakened militarily and turned into a political irrelevance. But it quickly transformed itself from a movement of violent militancy to one of the major players in mainstream Iraqi politics.

That anti-militia campaign of 2008 had been lead by the then Iraqi prime minister Nouri al Maliki, who, in 2005, had relied on support from the Sadrists to take the premier's job.

Mr al Maliki, now in his second term after a contentious election in March, was once again dependent on the Sadr movement to clinch the premier's job, its 39 parliamentary seats crucial in giving him the edge over his rival, Ayad Allawi.

As part of the political deal for its support, hundreds of Sadrist prisoners were freed from jail. The movement was also assured control of seven government ministries, although none of the coveted offices of oil, finance or security fell into its hands.

While that may please Mr al Sadr's opponents, both here and in Washington, which remains wary of the cleric's anti-American credentials, some commentators say the movement has been canny in taking over apparently weak or incidental ministries."If they play their cards in the right way, they might take control of Iraq," said Ahmed al Bahadili, an independent political analyst in Baghdad.

"They will be able to spread their influence over the coming four years and by the time of the next election, they will be even more powerful."I expect them to get stronger and I would not be surprised if the next prime minister was the Sadrists' man."

While the movement no longer has the military capacity to fight government forces, it wields great influence."The Sadrists still have followers who would fight for them if they needed that, but they are getting everything they want politically these days," said Mr Allawi, the analyst.

Nizar Latif and Phil Sands,
the National



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