May 25, 2007 07:14pm
Article from: Reuters
FIERY anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has attended Friday prayers in the holy Shiite city of Kufa today, his first public appearance since the start of a major US-backed security crackdown in Iraq in February.
A Reuters reporter saw him enter Kufa mosque surrounded by bodyguards and close aides.
The US military has said he went into hiding in Iran in January to escape the crackdown, but aides to the young cleric, who led two uprisings against US forces in 2004, say he never left Kufa.
While there will be much speculation as to why he has chosen to appear in public now after keeping a low profile for so many months, his sudden re-emergence comes at a critical time in Iraqi politics.
Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s weak and divided coalition government is under mounting pressure to reach key political benchmarks by September, when Washington says it will review its military strategy in Iraq and decide how to proceed. Mr al-Maliki owes his office to Sadr’s political support. Al-Sadr withdrew his six ministers from Mr al-Maliki’s government in April in protest at the Prime Minister’s refusal to set a timetable for a US troop withdrawal.
SHIITE CLERIC APPEARS IN IRAQ AFTER STAY IN IRAN
By MICHAEL R. GORDON and JON ELSEN
KUFA, Iraq, May 25 — The powerful Iraqi cleric Moktada al- Sadr surfaced in his home base of Kufa in southern Iraq today, delivering a sermon in a local mosque after what American intelligence officials called a four-month sojourn in Iran.
The cleric, addressing a large crowd amid heavy security, called for American forces to leave Iraq and for the Iraqi government to make sure that the Americans leave as soon as possible. He called for and end to fighting between his own Mahdi Army and Iraqi forces and police, asking his followers to conduct peaceful demonstrations instead.
He also requested reconciliation between Shiites and Sunnis….
Recently, Mr. Sadr has been taking a different tack. His supporters have met with Sunni Arab tribal leaders from Anbar Province who have been feuding with the insurgent group Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. The meetings were billed as an effort to forge a nationalist movement to overcome sectarian tensions, and the message appeared calculated to appeal to war-weary Iraqis. Some political analysts saw it as an attempt to expand his political bloc, and his return may also be an effort to advance this agenda.
….not even American officials privy to classified intelligence on Mr. Sadr’s return pretend to be certain what he has in mind.
Michael Gordon reported from Washington and Jon Elsen from New York. Iraqi employees of The New York Times reported from Kufa and Najaf.