Rumors are circulating throughout the Middle East that Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr may return to Iraq from his lengthy sojourn in Iran as early as this summer. The timing of al-Sadr’s return to his native country cannot be verified, but it does appear that he is preparing for a comeback. If and when that occurs, the Iranians will have to compete with the Turks for al-Sadr’s attention.
Al-Sadr was last seen publicly in Iraq on May 25, 2007, when he delivered a sermon in Kufa before heading to Iran. The story of how al-Sadr ended up in Iran dates back to 1999, when his father — the widely revered Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq Sadr — and two uncles were assassinated by Saddam Hussein’s regime, opening the way for the young al-Sadr to assume leadership of the populist Sadrite religious movement. Al-Sadr was expected to follow in his father’s and uncles’ footsteps to become an ayatollah, but with the fall of Hussein’s regime in 2003, he was compelled to drop his seminary studies and form the Mehdi Army militia to stake a claim in a Shiite-dominated, post-Hussein Iraq.
The militia proved a force to be reckoned with in Iraq — but in attracting the attention of the U.S. military, al-Sadr also invited a massive crackdown on his own strongholds in Baghdad and Basra. By that time, with a target practically painted on his head, al-Sadr was beginning to realize that without some bona fide religious credentials, he would be unable to keep pace with his religious and political Shiite rivals: Their militias were being formally integrated into the Iraqi security apparatus, while his militia was getting crushed. The Iranians, eager to develop another Shiite asset in Iraq, took al-Sadr in. He enrolled in seminary studies in the holy city of Qom, hoping to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a revered ayatollah.
While al-Sadr has been studying in Iran, the Mehdi militia has taken a beating, but the symbolic weight of al-Sadr’s family name has kept the movement alive in Iraq’s parliament and in the streets of Sadr City. Al-Sadr will remain a central figure in Iraqi politics for some time.
This is something the Turks understand well. Turkey is moving to assume a leadership role in the Islamic world, and it has a number of responsibilities to take on in Iraq now that U.S. forces are moving out. Al-Sadr has caught the Turks’ attention for a number of reasons. Not only is he a prominent Shiite leader with a large following, but he also promotes a fiercely nationalist agenda. This clashes with the federalism project pushed by the Kurds and the Iran-backed Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq party, which would form autonomous Kurdish and Shiite zones in the north and south.
The last thing Ankara wants is to see Iraq cut up into federal autonomous zones — which might embolden Kurdish separatists, hamper Turkey’s influence in the country and complicate its plans to export Iraqi oil to the West.
While in Iran, al-Sadr has softened his tone on the federalism project, but this is more likely a reflection of the Iranians’ control over his words and movements than of any real shift in his agenda. The Sadrist movement in Iraq is widespread (the Sadrists are known to have an office in the predominantly Kurdish northern region), and stands for a strong and unified Iraq that resists outside (particularly, Iranian) domination. Though al-Sadr has been cuffed to Tehran, while seeking both to avoid assassination and enhance his religious standing, the Turks want to bring him into Ankara’s sphere of influence.
To this end, Turkey invited al-Sadr to Istanbul on April 30 for a conference with 70 other Iraqi Shia and a high-profile meeting with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul. The publicity and hospitality shown were intended to boost al-Sadr’s credibility on the international stage and demonstrate Turkey’s recognition of his pivotal role in Iraqi politics. During the visit, al-Sadr and Turkish leaders discussed financing to rebuild Sadr City and other forms of assistance that would increase al-Sadr’s popularity upon his return.
For the time being, the Iranians still control al-Sadr’s movements. That he arrived in Istanbul on an Iranian plane shows that he would not have been able to make the trip without Tehran’s consent. Though Tehran does not share al-Sadr’s nationalist vision for Iraq, the regime recognizes al-Sadr’s clout there and thus has a strategic need to keep him close, using his religious schooling as the main tether. Al-Sadr is studying to become a marja (religious authority) or, if he is more ambitious, a grand ayatollah — a process that traditionally takes years to complete. However, the rumor is that the Iranians could fast-track al-Sadr’s seminary studies in the interest of using him in Iraq — though the legitimacy of such a move would be brought into question, particularly for a previous seminary dropout like al-Sadr. Rather than remaining in Qom, he would much rather study with Arab tutors in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf, to enhance his reputation among Iraqi Shia.
The Iranians can see that the Turks are expanding their influence in the region. Though Iran typically attempts to portray its relationship with Turkey as a mutually beneficial alliance of non-Arab powers with empire legacies, the Turks know that they have the Iranians beat in any geopolitical contest. Iran is also wary of Turkish intentions, given the strong U.S. support for Turkey’s regional rise. For now, Iran and Turkey are playing nice where al-Sadr is concerned. But if al-Sadr returns to Iraq, the Turks will be prepared to facilitate his political comeback, while Iran likely would find t much more difficult to use the raw and charismatic leader as an asset promoting its interests in Iraq.