Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, a fierce opponent of the United States and head of Iraq's most feared militia, came home Wednesday after nearly four years in self-imposed exile in Iran, welcomed by hundreds of supporters in a return solidifying the rise of his movement.
Al-Sadr's presence in Iraq ensures he will be a powerful voice in Iraqi politics as U.S. forces leave the country. He left Iraq in 2007 somewhat as a renegade, a firebrand populist whose militiamen battled American troops and Iraqi forces. He returns a more legitimized figure, leading an organized political movement that is a vital partner in the new government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Al-Sadr can wield a bully pulpit to put strong pressure on al-Maliki -- and is likely to demand that no American troops remain beyond their scheduled final withdrawal date at the end of this year. His return caused trepidation among many Iraqis, particularly Sunnis who remember vividly the sectarian killings carried out by the Mahdi Army, his militia, and believe he is a tool of Iran.
But his supporters were jubilant.
"He is our hero. We sacrificed for him. He said 'No' to the Americans and fought the Americans, and he is brave," said Mohammed Ali, among the crowds who turned out to greet al-Sadr in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, south of Baghdad.
Al-Sadr visited the holy shrine of Imam Ali, revered among the country's Shiite majority, wearing a black turban distinguishing him as one of the descendants of Islam's Prophet Muhammad and surrounded by a phalanx of bodyguards who attempted to hold back a throng of supporters.
He also visited the grave of his father, who was assassinated during Saddam Hussein's rule, before heading to his house. Dozens of black-clad Mahdi Army members spread out through the neighborhood surrounding his home.
The fiery preacher has legions of followers among Iraq's poorer classes who see him as a champion of their rights against both the Sunnis who dominated Iraq under Saddam and other Shiite political parties such as al-Maliki's Dawa party, which represents more of the Shiite middle class.
Al-Sadr has not been seen publicly in Iraq since 2007 when he left to study Islam in Qom, the seat of Shiite education, as a way to burnish his religious credentials. He also faced an arrest warrant for his alleged role in assassinating a rival Shiite cleric.
Iraqi political analyst Hadi Jalo told the Associated Press that al-Sadr's return underscores the U.S.'s waning political influence in Iraq as U.S. troops prepare to leave the country entirely by the end of this year.
"Now, the anti-U.S. political figures, whether Shiite or Sunnis, are feeling that they are more confident now and their role in shaping Iraq's future is expanding."