Moqtada al-Sadr has reappeared in Iraq, to give a fiery nationalist speech to followers. The NY Times says his reappearance has come after "his position has been significantly eroded because of a strong push by American forces against the Mahdi Army," although such a contention is highly disputable. There have been few real crimps on the Mahdi Army of late that weren't voluntary and most of Sadr's problems seem to be self-inflicted, relating as they do to hardline breakaway elements who disagree with his course of reaching out to Sunni nationalists.
(The NY Times, like most other media outlets, also uncritically accepts the U.S. military's claim that Sadr has been in Iran this last few months, even though his aides say that isn't true and there's not a shred of evidence other than "because we say so" to support it.)
Having said that, Sadr suffered a major setback today as one of his senior milita leaders was killed by British troops in Basra. The British are claiming the operation had the backing of the Maliki government - something that may well blow up in Maliki's face soon if various readings of political currents turn out correct.
Juan Cole, for instance, cites one Arabic-language report:
the head of the Council for the Salvation of al-Anbar, Hamid al-Hayyis said that a delegation from the Council met with the leadership of the Sadr Movement. They then ment with two cabinet members, the minister of state for national security affairs and the minister for national dialogue affairs. The Council delivered to the government a letter asking that it hasten national reconciliation and stop making sectarian speeches. Al-Hayyis said that this was the first major meeting of the two principal sects in Iraq, where national essentials were agreed upon and shedding Iraqi blood was prohibited.While KUNA reports on Sadr's speech itself.
Moqtada al-Sadr on Friday said he was against clashing with the legitimate forces of law and order because this served the interests of foreign occupation forces.The only real stumbling block is De-Baathification. If Sadr can cleave a line carefully which can restore the staus of Sunni teachers and such while still preventing more prominent Party members from returning to actual "positions of power" then he will be in a very strong political position indeed. With Sunni backing and a rule of non-violence against Iraqis, he can forge a political coalition to unseat Maliki's government in a velvet revolution - and if Maliki is green-lighting attacks on Sadrist loyalists then that will count severely against him in such a circumstance.
The young cleric, who called for the withdrawal of multinational forces (MNF) appeared for Friday prayers at a local mosque three months after he had reportedly fled to Iran when the US-backed Baghdad security plan was launched. "You should beware that those who are behind your clashes with the forces of law and order are the occupation forces, who are looking for an excuse for staying in Iraq.. So do not give them that excuse," he said in a Friday sermon addressed to his followers, who gathered in the mosque for the traditional Friday prayers.
He stressed that "any fighting between the Mehdi army (loyal to him) and the forces of law and order, is forbidden and banned," he said.
He called on members of the Mehdi army to use "peaceful means in the face of any provocation from the weak-hearted." He urged the government not to renew the mandate of the MNF "not even for an extra day, because we want them to withdraw." He called on the authorities to restore basic services, prevent members of the dismantled Baath Party from returning to positions of power and called for repairing religious shrines, that were recently damaged by bomb attacks.