Radical Iraqi Shiite Islamist leader Muqtada al-Sadr is expected to make a major speech Jan. 8 in which he will spell out his movement's agenda. Al-Sadr, the leader of the single largest Shiite political bloc in Iraq, returned Jan. 5 to Iraq from Iran, where he has spent most of time over the past several years shoring up his credentials as a bona fide cleric. Contrary to widespread fears, he probably intends to engage not in violence, but in politics. And this means intense U.S.-Iranian negotiations will likely come before U.S. forces leave Iraq. Al-Sadr's return comes as his movement has secured eight Cabinet portfolios in the emerging Iraqi government after winning 40 out of the 159 seats controlled by the super-Shiite bloc known as the National Alliance, the largest of all the Shiite factions. His movement has long been evolving into a political force from its initial status as one of the largest militias in Iraq. With his return he aims to continue to consolidate his political power, not to launch a new wave of militancy ahead of the scheduled withdrawal of the remaining 50,000 U.S. troops in Iraq by Dec. 31. His return to Iraq probably is not even permanent, as he most likely has not completed the seminary studies needed to qualify as an ayatollah. Al-Sadr arrived in Iraq the same day as a high-level Iranian delegation led by new Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi. The Iranian delegation held meetings with much of the Iraqi political elite and with top Iraqi cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. The Iranian visit and al-Sadr's return represent an Iranian move to consolidate their grip over Iraq — and to remind Washington that the Iranians are positioned to fill the vacuum U.S. forces will leave behind. Contrary to popular belief, the main U.S. dilemma in the region is not Iran's attempts to develop nuclear weapons, but the fear that Iran will become the most powerful conventional military force in the Persian Gulf region after the U.S. withdrawal. This would allow Iran to shape the behavior of the countries on the Arabian Peninsula, something Washington cannot accept. To prevent this outcome, Washington must either renegotiate the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that mandates its withdrawal from Iraq or reach some sort of understanding with Iran that would allow the Islamic republic to enhance its footprint in Iraq without undermining U.S. interests in the region. Shortly after arriving in Iraq, the Iranian foreign minister called for the removal of all foreign forces from Iraq, meaning Iran opposes any changes to the current withdrawal timetable — also a key demand of al-Sadr. The Sadrite movement's well-entrenched position in the Iraqi state is a key lever with which the Iranians hope to successfully block a renegotiation of SOFA. This makes the second U.S. option more likely — setting the stage for serious negotiations between Washington and Tehran in the coming year.
Al-Sadr's Return to Iraq and the U.S.-Iranian Entanglement