Apprehension in Iraq ahead of speech by cleric Muqtada al-Sadr

Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 6, 2011; 11:21 PM

BAGHDAD – Lawmakers across Iraq’s political and ethnic spectrums waited Thursday for word from anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, saying his first address after returning from nearly four years of self-imposed exile in Iran would likely say a lot about his intended approach to Iraq’s fragile new government.

Late Thursday, a spokesman at Sadr’s office in Najaf said the cleric would deliver “a very important speech” Saturday at his home outside the Shiite holy city.

After months of shifting political alliances finally produced a new government late last year, most Iraqis are still gingerly feeling their way forward. Some voiced cautious optimism that Sadr would seek to bolster the fledgling government – even Sunnis who had battled the cleric’s Mahdi Army militia and later charged that the Sadrist-controlled Health Ministry had murdered Sunni doctors.

But most groups were hesitant to say more, and that palpable sense of apprehension – coupled with a national military holiday that shut down the government and emptied the streets – produced the effect of an entire country pausing to weigh the impact of the cleric’s surprise reappearance Wednesday.

The mood also stood in stark contrast to the growing confidence displayed by Iraqi politicians in the two weeks since the creation of a unity government unleashed a flurry of political activity.

New government ministers touted plans this week for contracts to quickly build new power plants and, potentially, an oil pipeline to Jordan. Parliament met on 10 of the past 11 days to debate a national budget, nominees to head security ministries and other weighty topics.

Falah al-Naqib, a Sunni member of parliament and former head of the Interior Ministry, which oversees the police, said he hoped Sadr would prove to have a stabilizing effect.

“He should be here,” he said. “It’s better to have him here, where foreigners have less influence on him than if he stays in Iran or anywhere else.”

Naqib said he also doubted that Sadr could reconstitute his Mahdi Army so that it could wreak havoc to the extent it did in 2006 and 2007.

“I don’t think there is the capability for the Mahdi Army to do that again,” he said.

Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish lawmaker, agreed. “It is a good thing to have him back in the country. Why not?” Othman said. “He’s part of the political process, so now we must wait and see what he says.”

Nada M. Ibrahim, a spokeswoman for the Sunni-majority Iraqiya bloc, which holds the most seats in parliament, said she was confident that Sadr, whose backing allowed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to build the coalition needed to serve a second term, would choose to continue supporting the government.

“The Sadrists are a very big bloc inside the council, and they are a very big part of the Iraqi people,” she said. “The history of Mr. Sadr in the last few years is that he has had a role in peace and helping Iraq.”

Ibrahim said her biggest concern since Sadr’s return was merely for his safety. “Not from the government or from any group, but terrorism,” she said. “No one can say Iraq is on solid ground for security.”

Abdul Hadi al-Hassani, a secular Shiite in Maliki’s State of Law party, said Sadr had exerted significant influence on the new government even before his return.

“We cannot deny that Sadrists have developed in a big way in the political process,” he said. “Sadr’s arrival will have a positive impact.”

Hassani and Othman said that did not mean Sadr would not keep trying to gain power. They pointed to the eight ministries his party has secured in Maliki’s government, including the Labor Ministry and others that affect arguably the greatest number of Iraqi citizens.

“They want to be in touch with the people, have a voice with the people and use that to create more support for themselves – gain more people for their side,” Othman said.

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