What is Moqtada al-Sadr doing in Turkey?

    Moqtada al-Sadr in Istanbul.  Source: al-Sharq al-Awsat.   We haven’t heard much lately from Moqtada al-Sadr, the erstwhile leader of the Sadrist movement and the Jaysh al-Mahdi who is reportedly living in Iran. Sadr has not been officially been seen in public since June of 2007, and last appeared on the media in al-Jazeera ...

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Moqtada al-Sadr in Istanbul.  Source: al-Sharq al-Awsat. 

 We haven’t heard much lately from Moqtada al-Sadr, the erstwhile leader of the Sadrist movement and the Jaysh al-Mahdi who is reportedly living in Iran. Sadr has not been officially been seen in public since June of 2007, and last appeared on the media in al-Jazeera interview in May 2008.  So it is a bit of a surprise to see him suddenly appear in Turkey for two days of talks.   What’s he up to?  

 According to Turkish reports, Sadr met with Prime Minister Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul, along with other Turkish officials.No official statement was released from the meetings with Turkish officials. Al-Zaman reports that an unidentified Turkish official said that they discussed the security situation in Iraq and the evolving Turkish-Iranian relationship. A leading Sadrist said that Sadr went to Turkey from Tehran to follow up on conversations between Turkish officials and Sadrists in Najaf about the future of Iraq (which according to al-Zaman is the first official admission by the Sadrists that he has been in Iran).

 Perhaps as important, Sadr also reportedly met with a large number of Sadrist officials and personalities as well as a delegation of top leaders who came up from Iraq.  He reportedly laid out the political strategy for the movement in the new era.  The assembled Sadrists took the opportunity to discuss political strategies and coalitions for the coming election period in light of the failure of the Shia United Iraqi Alliance. Sadr reportedly spoke of “continued resistance” to occupation, promising not to use weapons against Iraqi soldiers but to continue all forms of resistance.  His spokesman also said that he promised to return soon to Iraq. 

 I’ve long since despaired of trying to understand the Sadrists, so I’ve got a lot more questions than answers about his sudden re-emergence. What does his public appearance portend for the role of the Sadrists in Iraqi politics in the coming period? Is this a bid for prominence in the upcoming national elections?  How would a Sadrist political revival affect the escalating tension between Maliki and his Shia rivals such as ISCI?  Or is this about security, whether the U.S. withdrawal plan or  the recent uptick in attacks on Shia targets?   Does Sadr’s choice of Turkey as the place to re-emerge send any message about the movement’s approach to the ever-hotter Kurdish issue?  A million and one questions…

Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).

He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements. Twitter: @abuaardvark

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