The Iraqi media has been abuzz with reports that powerful Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has left politics. The staunchly anti-Western cleric has not been seen in public for the past two weeks, fueling speculation that he may have quietly left the scene.
Sadr's Shi'ite bloc has dismissed the rumors, insisting their leader is simply taking extended time off following the holy month of Ramadan, which ended two weeks ago. But with no statements coming from Sadr himself, news of his "retirement" continues to make waves across the country.
A visit to Iraq this week by Turkey's main opposition leader should provide clarity. Kemal Kilicdaroglu's five-day trip, which begins on August 20, is expected to include visits with Sadr, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, and other prominent Iraqi political figures.
Reports that Sadr was bowing out of politics come amid a long-running political crisis in the Iraqi government, which is made up of an unwieldy coalition of Shi'a, Sunnis, and Kurds. The political chaos has coincided with growing sectarian violence between the Shi'ite and Sunni populations as well as escalating tensions within the Shi'ite community itself.
If the media reports prove accurate, Sadr's political retirement would mark a significant development. The cleric, who has been dubbed a "kingmaker," does not hold an official position in the government. But he boasts a strong power base among the Shi'ite community and the political party he is associated with, the Al-Ahrar party, holds a substantial number of seats in parliament and has several cabinet ministers.
Escaping The Heat?
Michael Knights, a fellow and Iraq expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says that even if Sadr were to leave party politics, it's unlikely he would disappear from the political stage. Sadr rose to prominence as the leader of the Imam al-Mahdi Army, a powerful militia that battled Western forces following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. In 2008, Sadr denounced violence and turned to politics, becoming a key figure in the country.
Reports of Sadr's exit have coincided with rising clashes between Sadr's supporters and the Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, a rival Shi'ite militant group led by Qais al-Khazali. Prime Minister Maliki, a fierce Sadr critic, has also ramped up his rhetoric against the cleric in recent months, even hinting at possible judicial and police action against Sadr's supporters.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki
Knights says with various actors ganging up on him, Sadr could be stepping back from an overt role in politics to take some of the heat off himself.
"My sense was that maybe Sadr was backing down because he felt threatened," Knights says. "We've seen this in the past when Sadr left Iraq because he had been receiving direct physical threats. My first instinct was that this is Muqtada backing down from a political confrontation with Khazali's Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq [and Maliki]."
In 2007, Sadr left Iraq and lived in self-imposed exile for the next four years in Iran. The move prompted a major offensive against his militia in Baghdad and Sadr's strongholds in southern Iraq. In May 2012, Sadr again fled to Iran for several weeks.
Some observers say Sadr may leave Iraq to continue his theological studies in the holy city of Qom, in Iran, in the hope of eventually becoming an ayatollah. That title would grant him greater religious legitimacy and allow him to mount a serious challenge to the Iraqi establishment.
Weakened Power Base
Melani Cammett, a Middle East expert at Brown University in Rhode Island, says Sadr's possible exit highlights the growing polarization within Iraq's ruling Shi'ite community. She says rival Shi'ite factions, who see Sadr as a threat, will do their utmost to weaken his power base.
"Some of the worst competition and even violence at various periods has occurred between Shi'ite militias and Shi'ite political factions," Cammett says. "It makes sense because they are all vying for representation of the community and trying to gain authority within the community. At present, there's growing tensions between Sadr and Maliki."
Sadr backed Maliki following elections in 2010 but has since joined Iraq's minority Sunni Arabs and Kurds in calling for the prime minister to resign.
Sadr's Shi'ite bloc has moved to quash reports that the cleric has quit politics. In a statement issued on August 11, the Al-Ahrar party said: "Contrary to what was circulated in the media, Muqtada al-Sadr is in retreat for the last 10 days of the blessed month of Ramadan, as he does every year. The reports that some people are now unfairly promoting about Muqtada al-Sadr are not true."
Prominent political figures have responded to the reports by calling on Sadr to reconsider stepping down. Iyad Allawi, a former prime minister who now heads the Sunni-backed secular Al-Iraqiyah political bloc, has urged Sadr to return.
"The decision is a loss for all Iraqis. We demand all national forces and parliament deputies within the Sadrist movement to persuade Sadr to reconsider his resolution in order to prevent sides that are conspiring inside and outside Iraq to destroy Iraq's national unity," Allawi was quoted as saying by Iraqi media.
With contributions from RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq