Saad Al-Hariri raised hopes that the crisis surrounding the international tribunal on his father's assassination would end, only for his New York visit to open more questions. Lucy Fielder reports from Beirut
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Al-Sadr in his first public appearance after four years of self-imposed exile in Najaf. The powerful cleric -- once battled Americans -- urged followers to resist the United States "with all means". Al-Sadr appears beneath a graphic banner bearing the pictures of his brother, the late Ayatollah Mohamed Baqir Al-Sadr, left, and father, the late Grand Ayatollah Mohamed Sadiq Al-Sadr
Iraqi Shia leader Muqtada Al-Sadr's triumphal return to his stronghold in the Iraqi city of Najaf last week after more than three years in self-imposed exile in Iran has raised the political temperature in Iraq and worried many Iraqis, as well as some outside Iraq.
The fiery cleric did not waste any time, and on Saturday he summoned thousands of his followers to a public rally in the Shia holy city in order to drum up support for his new political agenda: a full US troop withdrawal by the end of the year and checks on the new Iraqi government.
Al-Sadr, who has staked his reputation on resistance to the US military presence in Iraq, called on the new government to stand by its pledge to "get the occupier out of the country in a suitable way."
"We say to the Iraqi government, enough occupation and enough slavery," Al-Sadr said. "Let the whole world hear that we reject America. No, no, no to the occupier," Al-Sadr added, amid cheers from his supporters.
"Yes, yes, yes to Muqtada! Yes, yes, yes to the leader!" they shouted.
Al-Sadr's second message was addressed to the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki, and it was that it was better to listen to him than risk Al-Sadr's returning to old habits.
"Open the way for the new government to prove that it is serving the people," he told the crowd. "If the government will serve the people and their security and safety, we are with it," he said.
"We are still fighters," he told thousands of followers gathered in front of his house waving Iraqi flags and pictures of him.
In addition to the bluster, Al-Sadr also flexed real muscle by displaying his newly formed personal security force, which has formed a tight-knit cordon around him since his return to Iraq last Thursday.
The contingent of bearded men in black shirts and grey suits and with pistols strapped to their belts, together with others dressed like professional mercenaries, was a clear manifestation of the power Al-Sadr intends to exercise as a strong Iraqi leader.
His mass rally was an orchestrated show of force that aimed at instilling confidence among his followers and fear among other Iraqis still reeling from years of sectarian violence.
Following the 2003 US-led invasion, Al-Sadr gained widespread popularity among Iraqi Shias, and his Jaish Al-Mahdi (Al-Mahdi Army) later battled US and Iraqi government forces in several bloody confrontations.
It battled Sunni insurgents in many neighbourhoods of Baghdad, allowing the Sadrists to project the image of being the protectors of the Shias.
The Al-Mahdi Army controlled a large part of Baghdad, the oil-producing city of Basra, and parts of other predominantly Shia provinces in southern Iraq. During the worst sectarian strife in the country in 2006 and 2007, Sadrist militiamen went on the rampage, attacking Americans, Sunni insurgents and civilians, as well as Shia rivals.
However, in August 2008 Al-Sadr suspended the activities of the Al-Mahdi Army, which once numbered in the tens of thousands, after major assaults by the Iraqi army on its strongholds in Baghdad and southern Iraq ordered by Al-Maliki.
Al-Sadr himself left Iraq at the end of 2006 and has reportedly been pursuing religious studies in a Shia seminary in the Iranian holy city of Qom.
During his absence, the Sadrists split into several smaller groups, though in 2008 Al-Sadr expanded the movement from being essentially a militia into being a powerful grassroots Shia movement with a large parliamentary bloc.
After last year's 7 March elections, Al-Sadr became Iraq's king-maker. By delivering his movement's 40 parliamentary seats to Al-Maliki, he helped the incumbent prime minister to eclipse his strongest rival, former prime minister Iyad Allawi.
In return, Al-Sadr got his supporters key posts in the new government and made Al-Maliki release hundreds of his followers who had been imprisoned for serious crimes, among them terrorism.
Al-Sadr's family name contributed to his rise in Iraqi politics after the 2003 US-led invasion. His father, Grand Ayatollah Mohamed Sadiq Al-Sadr, was himself a powerful Shia cleric and a pillar of resistance to Saddam Hussein inside Iraq before his murder in Najaf in 1999.
Unlike most other contenders for the mantle of Shia leadership after the beginning of the American occupation, Al-Sadr was associated with the popular path of fighting the invaders, making him a hero to millions of his Shia followers.
Coupled with his advocacy of popular social and economic policies, including providing public services and caring for poverty stricken segments of the Shia population, this further raised his political profile, allowing him to use the election process to return to the centre stage of Iraqi politics.
In the 2005 elections, Al-Sadr's followers had won 30 seats in parliament and held eight ministries.
Al-Sadr's recent return to Iraq is thus being seen as an attempt to consolidate his group's hard-fought political gains by putting his house in order and tightening his grip on the sometimes rag- tag movement.
While the political wing of the Sadrist movement seems to be completely under his control, one of Al-Sadr's goals is to reign in the group's military wing, which has been reorganised under the name of the Doomsday Brigade.
Last December, Al-Sadr sacked some 100 members of the militia after the holding of a military parade during the Shia festival of Ashura.
"We don't kill Iraqis. We only target the occupiers," Al-Sadr told his followers on Saturday. "Resistance means resistance. It does not mean that anyone can carry a weapon. Weapons are for those qualified to use them."
"I don't want to hear complaints because of your actions," he told his followers. "Not from Iraqis and not from non-Iraqis." The message was clear: I am in control and you will accept discipline.
As the Americans prepare to leave Iraq by the end of the year, the Sadrist movement and its military wing is expected to become more prominent.
Although both Al-Maliki and the Obama administration have maintained that the roughly 50,000 US troops still in the country will leave by the end of the year, officials from both nations have acknowledged that Iraq is not yet ready to protect its borders from possible invasion.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times on 28 December, Al-Maliki said that the only way for any of the remaining 50,000 American soldiers to stay beyond 2011 would be for the two nations to negotiate a new agreement with the approval of Iraq's parliament.
This has led to speculation that Al-Maliki may ask a small number of American troops to remain even beyond the end of the year, to which Al-Sadr responded during his 35-minute speech by saying that "the government has pledged that the US presence will end and it should fulfil its promise."
There is increasing concern among many Iraqis, both Shia and Sunni, that a security vacuum resulting from the American withdrawal could herald a return to sectarian violence in the country, especially if Sunni insurgents return to the streets.
Al-Sadr has made no secret of his intention to stay in the political arena by strengthening his movement's political presence and its vast social network.
His election win of 40 of the 325 seats in parliament has elevated him to the status of a national leader and made his movement a key player in the country's politics.
With a weak showing by the other leading Shia politician, Ammar Al-Hakim, and his Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council in the election and his declining popularity, Al-Sadr has become an influential rival to Al-Maliki's leadership of Iraq's Shias.
Indeed, many analysts now believe that Al-Sadr, who has evolved from being a warlord and the head of a militia movement into the leader of a sophisticated populist political movement, will sooner or later find himself on a collision course with Al-Maliki.
After Al-Sadr's spending more than three years in Iran, questions are also being raised about Tehran's influence over his return and whether this will strengthen its interests in the beleaguered country.
Iraq's history since the US-led invasion has been shaped by sectarianism, power struggles, conflicts, clientelism and dependency -- all of them embodied in the Al-Sadr movement.
Al-Sadr's own new sugar-coated rhetoric cannot hide his true identity as a radical cleric with a hardline and even fanatical agenda. Reading between the lines, it becomes clear that his speech this week in Najaf promotes what it claims to oppose.