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SMITH: Preview of post-American Iraq

Sadr’s return marks a turning point in the Middle East

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Four years after fleeing his native soil for fear of arrest, "the most dangerous man in Iraq" has returned home. With U.S. troops set to depart over the course of 2011, Muqtada al-Sadr's triumphant homecoming marks the beginning of a post-American Iraq.

At the height of civil unrest, during the summer of 2004, Sadr twice deployed his Mahdi Army against U.S. forces. Again in 2008, his paramilitary battled Iraq's security forces in pitched combat. A thorn in the side of American interests, Sadr became a hero to Iraq's Shia population - long-oppressed and marginalized under Saddam Hussein's reign - for his violent opposition to foreign occupation.

In the months of political horse-trading that followed Iraq's parliamentary election, the United States encouraged the development of a pro-Western coalition between incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his rival, Iyad Allawi. However, Mr. Maliki's ruling coalition ultimately was made up primarily of Sadr's political faction and Iran's client party, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI). Mr. Maliki remains in power thanks to Sadr's support - and the presumed support of Tehran.

The hackneyed claim that "politics makes for strange bedfellows" fits the relationship between Sadr and Mr. Maliki. Backed by U.S. forces, in 2008, Mr. Maliki launched an offensive against Sadr's Mahdi Army in Baghdad's Sadr City. Although they eventually reached a cease-fire, Sadr continued to criticize Mr. Maliki and called for complete withdrawal of the U.S. troops.

Sadr's unique blend of religious patriotism and his cultivated image as the defender of Iraq's Shia community enabled his Free Movement party to become the only political faction to gain new seats in March. He also has softened the message. His proxies have mellowed their sectarian rhetoric and rebranded themselves as humble public servants of the Iraqi people. His embrace of the political process - as opposed to armed conflict - has made his homecoming possible.

In light of Sadr's return from exile, there is little doubt that the agreement struck with Mr. Maliki will give Free Movement increasing influence over security, political administration and provincial offices. Perhaps more alarmingly, in recent months, hundreds of his Mahdi Army have been freed from prison by the prime minister. Sadr's senior supporters are being brought into the Interior Ministry in high-level positions. The group also has secured political gains. The Sadr camp won the deputy-speaker position in parliament and is said to be vying for the post of deputy prime minister as well.

As U.S. influence wanes, Sadr's prominence is sure to grow. Iraqi lawmakers and political leaders are openly saying that they no longer follow U.S. advice or endorsement. Political insider Sami al-Askari, Mr. Maliki's close friend and confidant, told the Associated Press, "The Iraqi politicians are not responding to the U.S. like before. We don't pay great attention to them." Naturally, the strength of Sadr's bloc throughout government ministries would complicate any hushed plans to maintain a substantial U.S. troop presence in Iraq after the end of 2011. The Sadrists remain fiercely opposed to foreign occupation of any kind. Now, there is a growing apprehension in Washington that Sadr could establish a Hezbollah-like presence in and around Najaf. Given his powerful political faction and his paramilitary force, this concern is well-grounded. Nor are Sadr's ambitions limited to the domestic theater. High-profile trips around the region to meet with leaders of state and his close ties to Hezbollah and Hamas have made him an important regional player.

The question remains whether he will live long enough to make good on grand designs. Sadr sits high atop al Qaeda in Iraq's target list, given that his death - or martyrdom - would provoke new heights of sectarian violence. Likewise, there are rival Shia movements that would that would like to see him dead. One of the most actively hostile Shia factions, Asaib Ahl-Haq (League of the Righteous), splintered off from Sadr's Mahdi Army in 2008 and may not welcome his return. Since agreeing to join the government, Sadr has publicly renounced its violence. Its members, in turn, resent his condemnation. Of course, it remains to be seen whether Sadr's tenuous relationship with Mr. Maliki will hold. If the prime minister can't stomach a political rivalry with the radical cleric, it wouldn't be the first time he has tried to have him killed.

With Sadr reveling in the role of political kingmaker, the United States remains focused on the 2011 exit date while Iran seems to have discovered its newest surrogate. However, Sadr has proved to be nothing if not mercurial. Now a nation waits in apprehension to weigh the effect of the powerful cleric's re-emergence. Feared, reviled and revered, Sadr has staked his claim to his personal legacy and his nation's future.

Reid Smith is covering America's final year in Iraq for the Foreign Policy Association.

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