Another wild-card was thrown into the Iraqi mix on Wednesday with the return of radical Shia’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr from nearly four years of self-imposed exile in Iran.
A fierce opponent of the United States and head of Iraq’s feared militia, the Mehdi Army, al-Sadr’s return was reportedly low-key, and was not entirely unexpected following his agreement to support Nouri al-Maliki’s bid to retain power. On Wednesday evening, Sadr prayed at the Imam Ali Shrine (pictured) in Najaf, while police and bodyguards stood guard.
From a business perspective, many will remember that he called for a review of contracts with foreign oil companies, and also advised a follower not to accept a job from a British oil services company because of Britain’s participation in the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
But how concerned should international businesses be about al-Sadr’s return? He has already played a strong hand in government negotiations so far, and some key positions are still to be decided. If anything, his return serves to emphasise the compromise nature of the new government, and the fact that minority factions tend be disproportionately powerful in such administrations.
Many consider it highly unlikely, however, that he will be able to alter the course of cooperation between Iraq and the West. “So far I think [the Sadrists] received roughly seven percent of the popular vote and I think their role will be commensurate with that,” said US Ambassador Jim Jeffrey.
Al-Sadr’s return may be significant, but it’s importance should not be overstated.