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Return Of Iraq's Prodigal Son?

Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr visits the Imam Ali shrine on his return to Iraq, in Al-Najaf, on January 5.
It had all the hallmarks of a triumphant homecoming.

As Muqtada al-Sadr traveled from the holy city of Al-Najaf to the sacred Shi'ite shrine of Imam Ali on January 5, he was greeted by ecstatic shouts of "Long live the leader!"

Sadr, the radical cleric whose violent militancy once made him among the United States' most implacable enemies in Iraq, was making an unexpected return to his homeland after four years of voluntary exile in neighboring Iran.

Having left Iraq at a time when his Al-Mahdi Army militias were under severe pressure from U.S. and Iraqi forces, his supporters hailed his rearrival as a show of strength by his Sadrist movement, which reestablished itself as a significant political player in the country's recently formed coalition government.

Muhammad Ayid, a senior official in Sadr's office in Al-Najaf, says the hero's welcome was a demonstration of the Sadrists' popular political support.

He described it as "the leader...among his family and his people," adding that he noticed that "the fusion of the public around the leadership was clear when he went to the Old City [in Al-Najaf] and to Imam Ali's shrine."

"We saw how people surround him, which gives a clear message to many parties, especially those who want to deceive Iraq and its people, that the leadership and people are still at one in their belief," Ayid said.

Thrill Of Victory?

Sadr's return comes just weeks after the formation of a national coalition administration containing eight Sadrist ministers, ending a long political impasse that had seen Iraq go without a government for nearly eight months after disputed parliamentary elections last year.

The assertion of political influence followed the Sadrist bloc's relative triumph in winning 40 seats in March's poll, making it the second-biggest political grouping among Iraq's Shi'ite majority.

That newfound clout enabled Sadr to set aside his long-held hostility to the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, and agree -- apparently under Iranian influence -- to his group entering a government with him at the helm.

It is that rosy picture, according to Ali al-Saffar, an Iraq specialist at the Economist Intelligence Unit, that has prompted the charismatic cleric to end his seclusion in Qom, the home of Iran's Shi'ite ruling establishment, where he has supposedly been studying.

"It's been big news in Iraq that he's returned, and I think the reason a lot of people are attributing it to is that his party performed very well in the previous election," Saffar said. "The current prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, relied heavily on their backing to secure a second term. They have a lot more leverage than they did maybe nine months ago. So I think things are looking up for his party."

An additional factor may be indications that Sadr is unlikely to be called to account for the killing of a prominent Shi'ite scholar in April 2003, in which he was previously implicated and for which a warrant for his arrest was issued. The slain cleric's followers have recently dropped claims that Sadr was responsible and now point the finger at one of his former associates.

New Environment

While Sadr has yet to say whether his return will be permanent, Iraq is today significantly different from the country he left in 2007 shortly after Sadrist militias fought running battles with Iraqi police and rival Shi'ite factions while some supporters roamed out of control as freelance death squads.

Saffar said he believes Sadr's homecoming points to a "fundamental change" in Iraqi politics and society.

He noted that when Sadr left four years ago, Iraq was "a very different place."

"We had civil war raging. We had somewhere in the region of 3,000-4,000 deaths a month; now we get that in a year. And I think now there is a realization by Sadr and by his followers that they cannot continue the path they were on, that they would have to reevaluate -- and reevaluate they have," Saffar said. "[Sadr] ordered his militiamen to put down their arms, to stop resorting to violence. I think that was quite a shrewd move. He realized the Iraqi state was in a much better position to attack his militia."

Indeed, the Sadrists' relative political strength and the mass welcome accorded to their leader -- there were reports he might even lead Friday prayers in Al-Najaf -- may conceal shrinking public support and a climate less conducive to their radical militant message. Last year's electoral success was achieved with around just 7 percent of the vote. At the same time, the adulation held for Sadr in impoverished Shi'ite areas such as Sadr City in Baghdad contrasts with the hatred reserved for him elsewhere in Iraq.

While Sadr was able to fill the vacuum left by the absence of a functioning state following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime by U.S.-led forces in 2003, he now faces a situation where the accoutrements of statehood -- while still fledgling -- have been assembled to provide a modicum and public service and security.

In this transformed scenario, Saffar speculated, Sadr's ability to influence the course of Iraqi politics may be greatly diminished.

"I think what Muqtada al-Sadr faces right now is a declining support base, still strong, but a declining support base," Saffar said. "And I think the general consensus among the political class is, 'We have to make room for him. He's got the seats in government but let's try to stifle his power as much as we can and try to clip his wings as much as possible.'"

RFE/RL's Iraqi Service contributed to this report