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Back From Exile, Sadr Vows To Resist U.S., Help Iraqis

In Iraq, radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has returned home after nearly four years in exile. He has long been one of Iraq's most vocal critics of the U.S., and his militia, the Mahdi Army, clashed repeatedly with American forces.

Sadr loyalists were also thought to be behind much violence during Iraq's sectarian war.

Sadr left Iraq in late 2006 or early 2007. Now, the cleric says his role in Iraq is political, not violent.

His return has been uncharacteristically subdued — no rallies, no speeches, just a visit to a holy shrine in his hometown of Najaf and meetings with aides behind closed doors.

On local TV, the story was mentioned only briefly.

Sadr reportedly has been doing intensive religious study in Iran. His spokesman says he will continue those studies in Najaf.

Now, questions are turning to what Sadr's political role will be in Iraq. His party gained about 12 percent of the seats in Parliament in last year's election. But it was Sadr's support for incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that gave Maliki enough of an edge over his rivals to secure a second term.

Many analysts say Sadr is looking to style his group as the next Hezbollah, the Shiite militia that now wields considerable power in Lebanon's government.

The reasoning that both groups give for maintaining an armed wing is resistance. In Lebanon, it's resistance against Israel. In Iraq, says Sadr political adviser Balqis al-Khafaji, it's resistance against American troops.

"Let me here clarify ... it's [a resistance] against the occupation, and not against the people, the Iraqi people. While on the other hand, the political committee has another path, which is peaceful," she says.

That entails peaceful activities, in the form of services to the poor and previously disenfranchised Shiites of Iraq.

Young and loyal Sadrists like Uday Awadh Kadhim are thought by many to be the future of Sadr's movement. An electrical engineer from the Shiite-majority south, Kadhim was recently elected to Parliament.

He says the fact that Sadr's party took just a few, minor ministries in the new government, such as labor and public works, is all part of the plan.

"Other parties are looking for authorized ministries and security ministries, while our aim, according to the announcement of our leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, [is that] we are looking for service ministries, to serve people," he says.

Some Iraqis, many of them Sunnis, say this new image of the Sadr movement as one that resists Americans but serves Iraqis will never sell, especially among people who well remember when Sadr-affiliated death squads terrorized Iraqis during the sectarian war.

But other Iraqis, like Abu Aya, who owns a wedding shop in an upscale Sunni neighborhood in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, are willing to give Sadr a chance.

"If he's here to do good for the Iraqi people, then I say, 'Welcome,'" Abu Aya says. But if he's here to hurt us, he adds later, then God protect him against our fury.

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