Sunday, May 27, 2007


Iraqi politicians, U.S. optimistic on al-Sadr's return

(Middle East Online) - Iraqi politicians expressed cautious optimism Saturday that Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr's emergence from a four-month absence with a conciliatory message would boost efforts to stem sectarian violence. Leaders from both sides of Iraq's communal divide said they hoped the firebrand cleric's return to the political scene would give a fillip to national reconciliation efforts and rein in his loosely controlled militia.
"The return of Moqtada al-Sadr is necessary at this juncture... because his ability to give orders to his followers in person will calm the political and security situation," said Shiite member of parliament Abbas al-Bayati. Sunni politician Ayad al-Sammaraie echoed that view. "His existence inside Iraq will help keep his supporters following this policy," he said. "We welcome his call for national reconciliation. This is what we have been calling for from the beginning."
Sadr resurfaced at his mosque in Kufa on Friday after several months in hiding and delivered a sermon condemning the occupation of Iraq while at the same time insisting that the nation's fractured population had to get along.
Sadr created and leads the Mahdi Army, a loosely organised militia of tens of thousands of fighters across central and southern Iraq that has fought US forces twice and constantly spars with rival Shiite militias in the south. It has also been widely implicated in the wave of sectarian killing that has swept the country since the destruction of a revered Shiite shrine in February 2006, but Sadr has blamed the killings on armed groups outside of his control.
In his comeback address on Friday, the cleric appealed to Sunnis and Shiites to unite in the face of the US-led military presence which has become widely unpopolar in both communities. "I say to our Sunni brothers in Iraq that we are brothers and the occupier shall not divide us. They are welcome and we are ready to cooperate with them in all fields. This is my hand I stretch towards them," he said.
His comments drew praise from Miriam al-Rayyis, an advisor to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who said MPs should follow his example. "He supported unity in his speech on Friday and he didn't defend a certain side. We wish all our political leaders would talk like this," she said.
Sadr once supported the prime minister, but has since pulled out of the government as its reputation has suffered from continual infighting and its inability to address the violence plaguing the country. In December, a US military report identified the Mahdi Army and other Shiite militias it accused of sectarian cleansing as the biggest threat to Iraq's stability.
With the launch of a joint US-Iraqi security crackdown in the capital four months ago, the Mahdi Army decided to lie low. Washington says Sadr went to Iran, although his supporters insist he never left Iraq.
As a result, the US military has now returned to describing Al-Qaeda in Iraq as the number one threat and has been cautiously optimistic about Sadr's own role. "Now that he's back from four months in Iran, we hope he'll play a useful and positive role in the development of Iraq," said White House national security spokesman Gordon Johndroe.

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