BAGHDAD -- After an unexplained four-month absence, the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr re-emerged for prayers yesterday at a mosque in southern Iraq, raising questions about his motivations and how his return will affect efforts to stem violence and broker reconciliation between the country's factions.
In a sermon delivered to throngs of emotional supporters, the leader of the Mahdi Army militia repeated his demand for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. But he also struck a nationalistic, inclusive tone by appealing for understanding among Iraq's Shiites, Sunnis and Christians.
"Let each of you be the brother of the other one. Each of you should shake the hands of the other and embrace," al-Sadr told worshipers in Kufa, outside his base in the Shiite city of Najaf.
Hours after his sermon, Iraqi police and U.S. military officials announced the death of the Mahdi Army commander in the southern Shiite city of Basra. They said the militia leader, Wisam Abd Abdul, was killed in a shootout as British and Iraqi troops tried to arrest him.
Also yesterday, the U.S. military announced the deaths of six U.S. soldiers. That raised the monthly toll to 88 and put May on pace to become one of the deadliest months for American forces in Iraq.
The reappearance of the outspoken cleric ended a mystery that for months was a widespread matter of speculation.
Though al-Sadr's political party holds one of the largest blocs in the Iraqi parliament, he has been a target of the military since his militia forces battled U.S. troops to a standstill in 2004. Many believed he had chosen to lie low, and ordered his militia fighters to do the same, as the U.S. increased troop levels and stepped up efforts to secure Baghdad.
The U.S. military and others believed he was in hiding in Iran. His allies denied it but would not say where he was.
"He's got a very loose political movement," said Joost Hiltermann, director of the International Crisis Group's office in Amman, Jordan. "He was under criticism from within the movement for being a poor leader, in that he's not there. He had to come back and re-energize his supporters and reaffirm his leadership."
Al-Sadr might have carefully timed his return to seize the stage during the absence of his leading Shiite political adversary, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim. The head of the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq has left the country to undergo cancer treatment in Iran.
Tomorrow the Iraqi parliament is scheduled to vote on six new Cabinet appointees to replace Sadrist ministers who pulled out of the government in recent weeks.
Al-Sadr's sermon also comes as the U.S. and Iran are preparing to embark in the next few days on a dialogue over the future of Iraq. Vali Nasr, a Shiite author and fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said it is possible that al-Sadr's reappearance was negotiated by Iraq and Iran.
Yesterday, al-Sadr strode into the al-Kufa mosque behind political allies from his organization and personal bodyguards with beige suits and discreet ear-pieces. Worshipers in the mosque stood up as he talked and waved their hands in the air.
"No, no to vanity! No, no to Israel! No, no to America," they chanted as he climbed to the stage. "No, no colonialism! No, no imperialism! No, no Satan!"
In his sermon, al-Sadr called on U.S. forces to depart or set a timetable to leave. He called for patience and forbade his supporters in the Mahdi Army to clash with Iraqi forces. He reached out to Sunni leaders and asked his followers to take in Baghdad Christians being targeted by insurgents.
"I should not forget to remind you all that it's haram [prohibited by Islam] for the Iraqis to kill any Iraqi Sunni or Christian," al-Sadr said.
James Janega writes for the Chicago Tribune.