|A supporter of firebrand Moqtada al-Sadr held a portrait of the cleric yesterday in the Shi’ite city of Najaf. (Alaa Al-Marjani/Associated Press)|
Exile in Iran over, Sadr asks followers to display restraint
NAJAF, Iraq — Hundreds of raucous supporters celebrated the return of firebrand Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr yesterday after his emergence from four years of exile in Iran, drawing a plea from him to show more discipline and restraint.
The populist whose militiamen once battled American and Iraqi forces left Iraq in 2007. Then, he was seen as a powerful but unpredictable leader of a street-fighting organization. Upon his return Wednesday, he was a legitimate political figure heading an organized movement that is a key partner in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s new government.
The first public statement from him since his return, issued by his office yesterday, seemed designed to reinforce that image.
“I have seen only love and loyalty from you and this is exactly what you have seen from me, but the lack of discipline displayed by some of you, while I was performing my religious rituals and public matters, has bothered and harmed me. I demand you to exercise discipline,’’ he said.
He was referring to the rapturous reception by hundreds of followers a day earlier, while he visited a holy shrine. Crowds chanted, “Moqtada is our only leader.’’ Officials from his office said the cleric felt other politicians might view those cries as provocative.
Sadr made no public appearances. According to his office in Najaf, Sadr will give a speech tomorrow although there was no information on where the speech would be delivered.
A swarm of Sadr’s bodyguards — dressed in black clothes and flak jackets and armed with automatic rifles — deployed around his house in the al-Hanana neighborhood in central Najaf where followers were waiting to meet him.
One of the youngest among those gathered outside Sadr’s house was 9-year-old Mohammed Sadiq, who was accompanied by his uncle. “I’d like to kiss his hands and tell him: ‘I miss you and don’t leave us again,’ ’’ said Sadiq.
Supporters hung banners on nearby buildings. One of them read: “Yes, yes to our leader. Here we are at your service our master Moqtada.’’ Another banner said: “We renew our allegiance to our leader Moqtada al-Sadr.’’
The cleric was believed to be meeting with Iraq’s most revered Shi’ite figure, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, yesterday but the meeting could not be confirmed.