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The nationalist Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has reappeared before thousands of supporters for the first time in months to call for American troops to end the occupation of Iraq.
In an impassioned sermon to 6,000 worshippers in a mosque in the holy city of Kufa al-Sadr, wearing a white martyr’s cloak thrown over his dark robes, he cried: "No, no to Satan! No, no to America! No, no to the occupation! No, no to Israel!"
He had appeared earlier in the morning in the nearby shrine city of Najaf to travel in a long motorcade to Kufa to deliver the Friday sermon.
Mr Sadr, leader of a powerful Shia political movement and the much-feared Mehdi Army militia, disappeared some four months ago, evidently fearing that he would be targeted by the US. But he stood down his militiamen as the US Army introduced a security plan for Baghdad and avoided an all-out confrontation with the US.
In his sermon yesterday he forcefully demanded an end to the US-led occupation and offered reconciliation to Sunni Arabs. The Sadrist movement, founded by Muqtada’s murdered father, Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, in the 1990s, has always been nationalist but the Mehdi Army is hated by many Sunnis for its death squads and sectarian cleansing.
Surrounded by guards and aides in Kufa al-Sadr, Mr Sadr declared: "I renew my demand for the occupiers to leave or draw up a timetable for withdrawal, and I ask the government not to let the occupiers extend the occupation even for one day." He has removed six Sadrist ministers from the government, citing its failure to set a timetable for American departure.
Mr Sadr’s demand for an end to the occupation is likely to resonate in Iraq where the Sunni community has favoured this since the invasion of 2003 and the majority Shia community has increasingly wanted a timetable for a withdrawal, according to opinion polls. The Sadrists have been meeting with anti-al-Qa’ida Sunni tribal leaders from Anbar to discuss forming a common front. Sectarian suspicions between Shia and Sunni are so deep and bitter, however, that differences will be difficult to bridge.
There has been escalating intra-Shia fighting in southern Iraq over the past two months with skirmishes in all the main Shia cities. Often the police and security forces are simply militiamen in uniform.
Yesterday, Mr Sadr condemned fighting between the Mehdi Army and Iraqi security forces, saying that this served "the interests of the occupiers". He said that he preferred peaceful protests and sit-ins.
In an attempt to refurbish his reputation as a non-sectarian nationalist, Mr Sadr said he was ready to co-operate with Sunnis "on all issues". He added: "I am completely ready to defend them [Sunnis and Christians] and be their armour against their enemies."
Mr Sadr has been out of Iraq in Iran and Lebanon according to one of his aides, abandoning the Sadrist claim that he never left Iraq. He seems to have returned about a week ago, at which time Iraqis talking to Sadrist leaders noticed that they seemed to be able to reach him rapidly by phone on landlines, though there are no landlines to Iran.
His return now is probably explained by the damage his prolonged absence was doing to his movement. It is very dependent on the cult-like devotion felt towards the 33-year-old Mr Sadr by millions of poor and devout Shias.
Previously unheard of by the outside world, he emerged as a surprisingly powerful leader in 2003 at the time of the fall of Saddam Hussein. He inherited much of the authority of his father, who was assassinated with two of his sons by Saddam Hussein’s agents in Najaf in 1999.
The Sadrist movement’s blend of Islam, Iraqi nationalism and populism has proved highly attractive to Shia, particularly those who are very poor. The US tried and failed to eliminate Mr Sadr in two armed confrontations in April and August 2004. The Sadrist movement survived and went on to do well in the parliamentary elections of 2005, gaining 32 seats in the 275-member national assembly and six ministerial posts.
A further reason for Mr Sadr’s return now is the growing competition between his supporters and those of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) led by the ailing Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who has been diagnosed with lung cancer. SIIC, formed under Iranian auspices in Tehran in 1982, has been trying with some success to rid itself of the imputation that it is subservient to Iran.
The Sadrists, by contrast, were traditionally hostile to Iran but under US pressure have increasingly come to depend on Tehran’s support.
The Sadrists and SIIC are the main components of the United Iraqi Alliance, the Shia front supported by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and the religious hierarchy or Marjai’iyyah. Much though they dislike each other, they will be under pressure from the grand ayatollah not to divide the Shia community.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq‘, a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for best non-fiction book of 2006.