Reporting from Baghdad — Even as supporters of firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr rejoiced at his return to Iraq, some in the country's Shiite Muslim majority population expressed alarm Sunday about the implications of his homecoming.
In Baghdad and the southern provinces of Basra and Maysan, the news gave deep pause to some Shiite Iraqis, mindful of Iraq's history since 2003 and wondering whether Sadr would once more spark violent confrontations, or whether he had in fact truly evolved.
Sadr came home last week from Iran, where he had gone in 2007 after his Mahdi Army militia had engaged in years of fighting with American troops and had been blamed for some of Iraq's worst sectarian violence. His supporters won 40 seats in the Iraqi parliament last year, allowing him to play a decisive role in Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's return to power after a lengthy period of political deadlock.
For Abu Muhanned, 47, a resident of Maysan province, it was as if the clock had been set back to 2006, when Sadr's militia controlled neighborhoods and even some cities, with residents living at the mercy of pro-Sadr street commanders.
Already, Abu Muhanned, who did not give his full name out of fear of the fundamentalist religious movement, says he has seen Sadr's supporters again exert their will in Maysan's capital, Amarah. Now as part of the deal that brought Maliki, a Shiite, back for a second term, the prime minister has handed the province's governorship back to the Sadr movement.
"We feel that Maliki sold us out by appointing a governor from them," Abu Muhanned says, remembering how Maliki ordered troops to fight the group less than three years ago.
Sadr has proclaimed his support for the current Iraqi government and has vowed to work through politics for change. But rather than being heartened, Abu Muhanned feels fear. He knows Sadr's religious-civic organization, Mumahidoon, has divided the city into two districts, east and west, and wonders whether there are ulterior motives to such plans.
"They shave their moustaches and leave their beards long … we call them the Taliban Amarah," Abu Muhanned said. "His return back to Iraq will have nothing to do with strengthening the security and stability because their thoughts are based on the opposite of that."
In Basra, where Maliki's military forces defeated the Sadr movement in 2008, Sadr is far from popular and many here doubt that his movement has forsaken violence. "When Sadr was here, Iraq passed its worst stages including violence, killing and displacement, and I think that phase will be repeated," said Nassir Nayif Sulaiti, 49.
Such views make no sense to Sadr's fervent backers, including some who do not hide their past links to the violence. They were simply jubilant about Sadr's return, and uttered words that highlighted the thin line between the group's military and civic wings.
"When the leader came back, it's like Iraq was born again," said former Mahdi Army fighter Haidar Jassim Mohammed, 38. "Maliki promised us before.... I hope this time he implements his promises. We are all with our leader, if he says carry your weapons, we will do so. We all fought in the Mahdi Army."